Seminary education in Kansas City: a model of diversity in Southern Baptist life: Midwestern Baptist theological seminary

Seminary education in Kansas City: a model of diversity in Southern Baptist life: Midwestern Baptist theological seminary – Central Baptist Theological Seminary

Stephen R. Prescott

There are two Baptist seminaries in Kansas City separated only by a few miles and a state line. Although an American Baptist Seminary (or Northern Baptist for those too elderly to be compelled to change their speech habits), Central Baptist Theological Seminary historically had many Southern Baptists affiliated as students, professors, or trustees. The genesis of the establishment of a Southern Baptist seminary in the Kansas City metropolitan area perhaps lies in the 1950 decision of the Northern Baptist Convention to change its name to the American Baptist Convention and then to invite the Southern Baptists to join them. Northerners characterized it as an attempt at unity; Southerners more often labeled it as arrogant, noting that the smaller northern body had unilaterally adopted the name American and then called upon the Southern Baptist Convention to join them rather than proposing a jointly-developed merger plan. Whichever interpretation one adopts, and I suspect there is some truth in both, Southern Baptists largely regarded it as a hostile act and announced the end of all comity agreements, which had never really worked anyhow. (1) From that point forward, both the American Baptist Convention, later renamed the American Baptist Churches in the USA, and the Southern Baptist Convention would be national bodies, and the decade of the fifties was characterized far more by tension and competition between the two Baptist bodies than cooperation.

In May 1953, the Southern Baptist Convention voted to establish a committee to create a sixth convention-owned seminary. The Board of Trustees of Central Baptist Theological Seminary invited the committee to meet with them, and asked that the Southern Baptist Convention consider financial assistance to Central, in essence joint sponsorship. At the 1956 convention, the committee presented a report in which it recommended that a sixth seminary be established as soon as a location was chosen and sufficient funding was available. The committee report added an additional recommendation that the Southern Baptist Convention not undertake joint ownership, administration, or support of the new institution with any other Baptist body. The convention adopted the report, thus rebuffing Central’s overture. (2) Three months later, the American Board of Education and Publication recommended that Central align itself solely with the American Baptist Convention and that the Board of Directors be limited to American Baptists. (3) I allude to this history because many believe it significant in subsequent events at Midwestern.

Many cities, including Jacksonville, Chicago, Topeka, Denver, Memphis, and St. Louis, as well as Kansas City, made bids for the new seminary. On May 29, 1957, the Southern Baptist Convention voted to establish the new seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. The name Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was chosen, and Millard Berquist, then pastor of First Baptist Church of Tampa, Florida, was chosen as first president. The school opened in the fall of 1958 in rented quarters in the Calvary Baptist Church. It moved the next year to its current location, the former Vivion Farm in North Kansas City, Missouri. (4)

The new seminary soon hired several faculty members who had been dismissed from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville by President Duke McCall. The precise nature of theological stance of Midwestern over the years has been a source of great debate. However, the faculty has included a process theologian, and the “critical method” of studying the Bible has been accepted and taught by many of the Bible faculty. At least during the 1980s, Midwestern was generally open to women in the pastorate. Whatever one’s opinion of the accuracy or fairness of the assessment, Midwestern, along with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has been widely perceived to be more moderate, or liberal depending upon one’s view, than the other three Southern Baptist seminaries. In any event, during the period 1961 to 1963, Midwestern Old Testament Professor Ralph H. Elliott’s book, The Message of Genesis, engendered much dissension over the doctrinal position of the professor, and ultimately led to his dismissal. I consider the Elliott Controversy, not the 1979 Southern Baptist Convention meeting, as the start of the Conservative Resurgence, The Controversy, or the Conservative Takeover, however one chooses to label it. (5) Thus, despite its comparatively short history, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has not been without significance in the larger Southern Baptist picture.

Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary remained the smallest of the Southern Baptist seminaries. A major contributing factor in the comparative small size is doubtless geography. Only Midwestern is on the border of traditional Southern Baptist strength. However, the perceived theological position of the seminary, probably a result of the Elliott affair, seems also to be a factor. Many Missouri students chose to leave the state and study at Southwestern. Despite the early antagonism, Midwestern and Central did achieve cordial relations. Along with the other two seminaries in the Kansas City area, a cross registration privilege for students was established, one that continues to this day.

Midwestern’s Approach to Seminary Education Today

As one trained as a church historian and being in the early stages of researching a history of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary that I hope to write over the next year, the temptation is great to spend my time on the history of the institution. However, my assignment, as I understand it, is to discuss Midwestern’s approach to seminary education and the expected outcomes for the students today. So I will reluctantly devote the remainder of my time and space to MBTS today. Over the last three years, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has carefully examined its purpose and mission, its strategies for implementing that mission, and the appropriate method of measuring the outcomes. The MBTS Board of Trustees has adopted the following purpose statement: “The purpose of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is to educate God’s servants to biblically evangelize and congregationalize the world, with special focus on the Midwest/Great Plains region of America.” (6) In a process analogous to “zero-based budgeting” in fiscal affairs, the administration and faculty have attempted to implement this purpose. Everything was put on the table and nothing was sacrosanct. Nothing was to be kept simply because “we’ve always done it that way.” The trustees, administration, and faculty have examined what precisely the purpose of the seminary is, and how to most effectively implement that purpose. I want to emphasize at the outset that all three groups: trustees, administration, and faculty, have been integrally involved in this process.

First, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’ is a Southern Baptist institution. It was created by Southern Baptists and receives the great majority of its funds from Southern Baptists through the Cooperative Program. The seminary must be faithful to that heritage. The institution acts in a fiduciary responsibility to the churches that have charged and entrusted us with training their pastors and other ministers. Consequently, the seminary must educate men and women within the Baptist tradition and effectively prepare them to minister in a Southern Baptist context. This is not to deny the importance or validity of other Christian traditions, and non-Southern Baptists are welcome to enroll at Midwestern. However, Midwestern is very self-consciously a Southern Baptist school. It is also very self-consciously a theological seminary, and exists for the sole purpose of training Christian ministers.

There are a plethora of ministries in the contemporary church and a multitude of different educational programs to prepare individuals to function in these varied ministries. No seminary can be all things to all people. As the youngest and smallest of the six Southern Baptist seminaries, Midwestern must be judicious in selecting fields in which to concentrate its ministry. Midwestern has determined that its unique and special mission is to prepare pastors and other ministers for Southern Baptist churches and mission fields with heavy emphasis upon our “parish,” the Midwest and Great Plains region of the United States.

The faculty has decided to concentrate strictly on ministerial preparation. Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has no plans to develop a doctor of philosophy or other research doctorates. Doctoral-level training is, of course, essential to provide professors and other denominational leaders for the educational institutions and churches of our convention. However, four of our seminaries already offer outstanding doctoral programs. Thus, Midwestern has no aspirations of ever developing a doctor of philosophy program. A limited master of theology program has been considered, but not yet accepted. Conversely, the seminary, which has historically had a large professional doctoral program, will continue and strengthen that emphasis to provide more effective ministerial leadership for our churches. The doctor of ministry degree has been revamped in 1999 to upgrade requirements and allow formal specializations within the degree. These changes have resulted in our doctor of ministry degree requiring more credits than all our sister seminaries except one, which might be a competitive disadvantage. However, the curriculum was designed to equip experienced ministers for the highest level of ministerial practice, and the institution is willing to live with any deleterious effect in the “marketplace.” We are also developing a professional doctoral degree for individuals whose ministries are educational rather than pastoral and preaching. A Doctor of Educational Ministry degree building upon the Master of Christian Education degree has been submitted to the accrediting agencies and will open this fall pending final accreditation approval.

Similarly, three of our seminaries have opened four-year collegiate programs. Midwestern has no plans ever to develop an undergraduate program on our campus. We will remain a theological seminary only. However, we will continue to offer a diploma program for individuals aged twenty-eight or more who have not had opportunity to complete a college degree. Similarly, Midwestern has no plans to develop master’s degrees in counseling, Christian school teaching, Christian journalism, or similar programs. God may well lead other seminaries into these fields, and we are glad about that, but the trustees, administration, and faculty of Midwestern believe that our special calling from God is to prepare ministers.

I have attempted to summarize the mission and goals of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary at the close of the twentieth century in the preceding paragraphs. How has the institution attempted to implement these goals? While many interpretive schema could have been utilized, I have analyzed the educational philosophy and program of the seminary around twin foci: confessional integrity and ministerial preparation for our parish of the Midwest and Great Plains.

Confessional Integrity

Midwestern is consciously a Southern Baptist institution. That means many things, but most importantly it means that instruction and teaching must be faithful to Southern Baptist doctrine and heritage. At Midwestern we believe that confessional integrity has three elements: strict adherence to the formally adopted doctrinal positions of the Southern Baptist Convention, freedom in those areas in which Southern Baptists have not taken a position, and integrity and clarity about what the doctrinal commitments of the institution are.

The Baptist Faith and Message, as everyone in this auditorium probably knows, is the statement of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention. First adopted in 1925, it was modified slightly in 1963 and 1998. Upon the founding of the seminary in 1957, the Board of Trustees of Midwestern Baptist Seminary adopted the Baptist Faith and Message as the official statement of faith of the institution. Every elected faculty member in the history of the institution has had to acknowledge the Baptist Faith and Message in writing. This is not regarded as a formality. However talented and gifted a scholar may be, if he or she cannot accept the Baptist Faith and Message without reservation, Midwestern could not hire him or her to teach here. This is not parochialism or bigotry. We would not deny that many pedobaptists, for example, are devout Christians. However, we would deny that such individuals should teach in a Baptist seminary.

The Baptist Faith and Message states of the Bible, “It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error for its matter.” The Southern Baptist Convention has explicated and confirmed this commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture in both the Peace Committee Report of 1987 and the Report of the President’s Theological Study Committee of 1993. In accordance with these binding documents, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is committed to the authority, integrity, and inerrancy of the Christian scriptures. While granting latitude of interpretation within the confines of Southern Baptist doctrinal standards, MBTS requires all faculty members to affirm without qualification the reliability of the Bible.

Midwestern feels a heavy burden to ensure that its faculty teaches within the parameters of the seminary’s confessional stance. However, it also attempts to ensure that additional doctrinal constraints are not imposed based on the personal convictions of the majority of the trustees, the president or other administrative officers, or the majority of the faculty. Thus, in areas in which the Southern Baptist Convention has not adopted a position, the seminary also adopts no position, and faculty are welcome from a variety of convictions. Examples of such areas are the “points” of Calvinism, millennial systems, and worship styles. In all three of these areas, among others, the current faculty of Midwestern represents a wide variety of positions. Included on the faculty are Calvinists and outspoken non-Calvinists; postmillennialists, amillennialists, post-tribulational premillennialists, and pre-tribulational premillennialists; advocates of seeker-sensitive worship styles and advocates of very traditional worship styles. In areas in which the Southern Baptist Convention has not adopted a position, the seminary has no liberty to arbitrarily impose one.

The third aspect of confessional integrity is to ensure that the professed doctrinal commitments of the institution are, in fact, what is taught in the classroom. Ralph Elliott, a former professor at Midwestern laments repeatedly in his memoir the practice of professors in Southern Baptist theological seminaries using what he calls “doublespeak.”

“Doublespeak” has become an insidious disease within Southern Baptist life.

Through the years, the program at Southern Seminary has acquainted students

with the best in current research in the given fields of study. Often,

however, this was done with an eye and ear for the “gallery” and how much

the “church trade” would bear. Professors and students learn to couch their

beliefs in acceptable terminology and in holy jargon so that although

thinking one thing, the speaker calculated so as to cause the hearer to

affirm something else. (7)

Elliott contended in his memoir that he was not the most “liberal” professor at Midwestern, only the most candid. I suspect that Elliott was correct in his analysis. Our trustees have developed a faculty questionnaire designed to allow potential professors an opportunity to state explicitly in their own terms their doctrinal convictions (and also their commitment to the programs and work of the Southern Baptist Convention). Everyone who teaches at Midwestern, even adjuncts, complete this questionnaire, and every classroom teacher is approved by the Committee on Instruction of the Board of Trustees. Some might believe that this undesirably hamstrings the president from appointing anyone he chooses. However, it is the conviction of the trustees, administration, and faculty that such candor is good. Whatever one’s theological convictions, surely the “doublespeak” to which Elliott referred cannot be good, and the cause of truth is better served when all have the integrity to state our convictions with clarity and honesty rather than “playing to the gallery.”

Ministerial Preparation

Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has chosen to limit itself to preparing ministers. Of course, all seminaries are in the business of training ministers, but many offer specialized training for many specialized and nontraditional ministries. Midwestern is located in a pioneer area of Southern Baptist work. Most of our graduates will minister in the Midwest or Great Plains. On average, Southern Baptist churches are smaller and much less numerous in this area than in the Old South. Many of our graduates will serve churches where they are the only member of the ministerial staff. A significant number will establish new churches in communities without a Southern Baptist witness. Others will serve as youth ministers, music ministers, or other core staff positions. Few churches in this part of the country have counseling ministers, recreation ministers, drama ministers, and other such specialized staff positions. Accordingly, it is necessary to train generalists–individuals who can do all aspects of the work of the ministry. Midwestern has attempted to address our unique situation in two ways: the new curriculum and specialized “on the field” degrees in areas of great need.

The New Curriculum

During the 1997-98 academic year, the seminary engaged in an intensive study of the curriculum. Rather than attempting to fine tune the existing curriculum, the faculty committee started “from scratch.” The old courses were abolished. Every requirement was reexamined. Writing on a clean slate, the committee developed a curriculum designed to prepare pastors, missionaries, and church staff members to minister in the twenty-first century. It was often grueling, sometimes challenging, occasionally frustrating, but in the end, a very rewarding process that ultimately involved the entire faculty. Effective with the 1998 fall semester, the requirements for the master of divinity were raised from eighty-eight to ninety-four semester hours. The requirements for the Master of Arts in Christian Education and Master of Church Music degrees were also increased. However, the changes were far more than an increase in required hours. The entire curriculum was substantially revised.

Length prohibits a complete description of the features of the new curriculum. I will highlight four areas: an emphasis upon the minister’s personal piety and devotional life, an emphasis on sound exegesis and the original languages, an emphasis on expository preaching, and an emphasis on providing the practical tools for ministry in the next century. One of the first faculty hires made by the current president was a professor of spiritual formation. Although long common in some seminaries, this was the first such faculty position in a Southern Baptist seminary. Midwestern is convinced that eternally-effective ministry requires an intimate relationship with God. The finest academic preparation cannot substitute for a living, growing, vital faith which animates every aspect of one’s ministry. Accordingly, all students are required to take Personal Spiritual Disciplines their first year of attendance. This course not only attempts to help students to develop a disciplined Christian walk, but to equip them with the skills to teach the members of their future congregations to do so also.

Southern Baptists are nothing if they are not a people of the Book. For most Southern Baptists the Bible stands alone, the source for all we believe. Midwestern Seminary is committed to the position that a pastor must be foremost of all a minister of the Word. We have no desire to train men to preach politics, social issues, the denominational program, or anything else except the Word of God. Oh, all of these subjects can and should be addressed, but from the standpoint of God’s eternal truth, not the latest sociological or psychological fad or the personal predilections of the preacher or his seminary professor.

Midwestern has substantially upgraded its requirements in Bible in accordance with its goal of producing ministers of the Word. The previous language appreciation courses have been discontinued, and the master of divinity degree requires a full-year of Greek and Hebrew. Every graduate is capable of reading the original languages for himself and is capable of evaluating the strengths of various translations. Midwestern now also requires a three-credit course in hermeneutics and a course in biblical backgrounds. It is the seminary’s intention that each graduate be skilled as an exegete of God’s Word.

Midwestern’s primary purpose is the training of parish ministers. To this end the seminary also requires a full year of expository preaching in which the student is taught the principles of drawing the message of the sermon from the text of Scripture, not deciding on a message and then searching for a passage to “proof text” the message. In a day in which many seminaries have abandoned exposition for topical sermons, dramatic monologues, or “felt needs” messages, Midwestern has deliberately developed an “Expository Preaching” department.

The new curriculum is very classical in many ways. However, it is also very contemporary. A wide variety of courses were added to the required curriculum to prepare a graduate actually to function as a minister. Every student is required to take a course in Computers in Ministry. Another required course is Christian Communications in which the student is taught the essentials of church public relations and pastoral writing. Southern Baptist Convention is another required course. This course was developed when it was determined that many seminary graduates lack a knowledge of basic facts about the denominational structure of the Southern Baptist Convention, such as how one is elected a messenger to the convention or where to refer a youth who feels called to missions. There are several other such practical courses, but these are illustrative.

Specialized “On the Field” Degrees

Geographically, Midwestern is located outside the historic center of Southern Baptist strength. The Midwest and Great Plains are a diverse area. Much of it is rural and agrarian. Small towns and farming communities abound. However, it is also home to great metropolises: Chicago, Omaha, and Minneapolis being examples. To meet these needs, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has developed four specialized master of divinity degrees. These are the Master of Divinity degree in Domestic Church Planting, International Church Planting, Urban Missions, and Collegiate Ministries. Known as “two plus two” degrees, students spend two years in full-time study on the Kansas City campus of the seminary. They then spend two years in ministry and while in ministry complete the third year of seminary training during intensive on-campus courses during January, June, and July of the third and fourth years; or in the case of International Church Planting, the professors go to the students. Thus, a student graduates not only with thorough academic training, but also with two years of practical experience. Church planters will have already started a church, collegiate ministers will have spent two years on the campus of a state university reaching college students for Christ. These degrees are very specialized and most students will pursue the traditional three-year master of divinity. However, for individuals who feel a definite calling to these difficult, but vital, ministries, the specialized master of divinity offers training designed to prepare them to plant churches, reach the large urban areas, or minister in a university setting immediately upon graduation.

Closely related is our strong emphasis on missions. Midwestern has an unusually large percentage of missions volunteers within its student body. One of the specialized Master of Divinity degrees is in church planting. Many of our domestic church planters also feel called to foreign missions during the course of their training. Apparently it is contagious; this previous fall one of our theology professors resigned. God had called him into missions. He is now on the mission field in Thailand.

These innovative degrees are growing rapidly, and Midwestern has applied to the Association of Theological Schools to begin its first specialized Master of Arts degree this fall. We plan to open a Master of Arts in Corporate Chaplaincy. It is the first degree of its kind as far as the seminary is aware. It will include a thorough grounding in Bible, theology, and church history and several courses in Christian counseling. Students will be trained to establish marketplace ministries and minister in factories, offices, banks, retail stores, and other business environments. Most of the employees to which the corporate chaplain will minister will be non-Baptist and non-Christian or nominal Christians.

Women in Ministry

As a final area, let me address the subject of women in the ministry because I know it is of interest to many. I will attempt to be as candid as I praised Dr. Elliott for in his rejection of doublespeak. Consistent with the overwhelming practice of Baptists throughout history, Southern Baptist Convention resolution, and Convention agency policy, Midwestern teaches that the Bible requires that the pastor of a congregation be male. However, the seminary also affirms that a wide variety of vital and effective ministries are open to women and that God calls women to these ministries. Thus, all of the degree programs of the seminary are open to women including the Master of Divinity. (8) A number of women are enrolled in the various degree programs of the seminary and make a major contribution to the life of the school. Indeed, at recent graduation exercises, a woman was awarded the theology prize as the best theology student in the graduating class. Succinctly stated, Midwestern affirms women in a wide variety of ministries, but not women in the pastorate.


In summary, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary sees its purpose as training ministers biblically to evangelize the lost and plant and grow New Testament churches with particular emphasis on the Midwest/Great Plains region of the United States. It endeavors to do this through an explicit commitment and authentic faithfulness to Baptist doctrinal standards. The seminary regards the Baptist Faith and Message as binding and is not willing to tolerate either deviance there from or the imposition of additional doctrinal standards not approved by the Southern Baptist Convention.

Educationally, Midwestern is attempting to meet its educational goals by an emphasis on academic excellence and the classical theological disciplines. Students are required to learn the original languages and every pastoral student is taught to prepare and deliver effective, relevant, expository sermons that faithfully expound the scriptural text. Coupled with this rigorous theological training is an emphasis on the practical skills to perform ministry today. Our aim is to equip students with twenty-first centuries methods for communicating a first-century message.

The new direction and curriculum of Midwestern have been well received by our supporting churches and students. Enrollment has grown approximately 30 percent over the last three years. The trustees, administration, and faculty of the seminary are grateful to God for His blessings on our efforts. We would ask consecrated Christian men and women everywhere to pray for us as we undertake the awesome task of training God’s ministers.

Recommendation No. 5 was adopted.


That the Southern Baptist Convention approve the establishing of a new seminary as soon as it can be determined where such a school should Be located and when such an undertaking can be financed without impairing our present seminaries and Cooperative Program allocations to all of our agencies and institutions, the time and location to be recommended to the Convention by its Committee on Theological, Religious, and Missionary Education.


That the new seminary be located at Kansas City, Missouri.


(1.) See generally H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), 580.

(2.) No history of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has been written. However, H. I. Hester, first chairman of the Board of Trustees and later vice president, authored a short (20-page) synopsis of the founding: The Founding of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Kansas City, Mo.: Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1964).

(3.) McBeth, 674.

(4.) See Hester.

(5.) Judge Paul Pressler, widely labeled as the architect of the Conservative Resurgence identifies the Elliott affair as the beginning of his conviction that the Southern Baptist seminaries tolerated what he considered to be aberrant doctrine. Paul Pressler, A Hill on Which to Die: One Southern Baptist’s Journey (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1999), 51-53. See also David T. Morgan, The New Crusades, the New Holy Land: Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention, 1969-1991 (Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1996), 8-9. Morgan discusses the role of the Elliott controversy and the resulting 1963 modifications to the Baptist Faith and Message in fueling the conservative’s dissatisfaction.

(6.) Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1998-2000 Catalog, 5.

(7.) Ralph H. Elliott, The “Genesis Controversy” and Continuity in Southern Baptist Chaos: A Eulogy for a Great Tradition (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1992), 33. Elliott repeatedly refers to the practice of “doublespeak” throughout the book.

(8.) Women students substitute other courses for two classes: Pastoral Leadership and Expository Preaching Lab.

Stephen R. Prescott is appointed assistant professor of church history, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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