I’m a thousand miles from Searcy, Ark., and I usually go months without bumping into a Harding University grad (with the exception of my wife), but I have gotten a few texts/emails asking me what I think about Harding’s new president. It seems like the selection process has set off a firestorm of frustration—is that too strong of a phrase?—among a good number of Harding alumni.
And I have thought about it. And I have read a few blogs. And I have thought about it some more.
And I have come to this conclusion … “I don’t really know enough about Bruce McLarty (the selectee) or Monte Cox (the apparent front runner for my demographic) or any other candidate to say anything about it.” They all seem like decent people to me.
But I am still writing here. So as long as I have the floor, I’d like to share a little something that’s been on my mind … about the future of Harding. And since it seems that these types of posts always carry a few caveats, I will make no exception here:
- I like the current Harding president, Dr. David Burks. He’s always been extremely kind and giving to my family. He’s done a bang-up job as president. I’m not a detractor.
- I don’t know anything about the Harding board of trustees. I don’t even know who’s on the board of trustees. I trust that they are godly men and women. (Are there women on the board? I’m not kidding … I should probably ask someone.)
- I love most things Harding. Harding was my first “community.” As a kid, I cut through the backyard of Harding’s president on my way to and from school. I’ve worn HA Wildcat and HU Bison gear for as long as I can remember. (And even now, in Northern Virginia, I often run errands while sporting either a Bison short-sleeve or long-sleeve tee.) I’m a lifelong Harding fan.
Did I mention I love Harding?
Okay … with all of that said, here’s the deal:
Many months ago I was thumbing through a copy of the Harding Magazine, the winter 2012 edition, and noticed an article about “Reaffirming our mission” from the HU board of trustees. My geeky brain said, “Hmm, this sounds interesting,” and I dug in. I was surprised to see the below wording as a part of Harding’s “mission.” (By the way, I’ve gone online to find a copy of the article, but can’t get to it. I believe the wording is similar to this 2008 statement.)
"Harding has always been deeply connected with churches of Christ, and we reaffirm this connection as we move into the future. In keeping with this, our goal will be to continue to hire only members of churches of Christ as faculty and administrators. Though we live in a time of significant confusion over our brotherhood's identity, we are determined that Harding University will become captive to neither a rigid legalism on the right nor a formless liberalism on the left. 'With gentleness and respect' (1 Peter 3:16) we affirm on this occasion such distinctive convictions of mainstream churches of Christ as baptism for the remission of sins, a cappella music in worship, and male spiritual leadership."
I was surprised by how deeply I “felt” something when I read this. I wouldn’t call it anger or disappointment, but something else. I tried to put the something else into words, but I had trouble. The best explanation that came to me was … that the statement by the board of trustees felt like an “exclusion.” That those outside of a traditional church of Christ community, a part of the “formless liberalism on the left,” would be treated kindly by Harding … but, in effect, would be excluded from full acceptance, full fellowship. This statement, made in 2012, sounded no different than statements I had heard in 1972:
- Salvation comes only at the point of baptism (immersion)
- No musical instruments shall be allowed in worship
- Let the women keep silent in the church
And I wonder, in the aftermath of HU’s presidential selection—here’s the crux of the thing for me—I wonder if there’s a place for a more progressive man or woman as Harding’s president one day? Is it really possible, as long as the university clings to the above mission? And I wonder—for the rest of us who will never become president—if there’s a place for us at Harding’s table as well? A place of full inclusion?
- A place for people who would embrace not just other CofC members as Christians, but who would also consider “baptized believers” from other denominations and even “sprinkled” Protestants and Catholics as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
- A place for people who support a greater role for women in the church. For people who believe—at the very least—that women can be active in public prayer and singing and in much of the church’s decision-making.
- A place for people who are no longer concerned about instrumental music. Who consider it a non-issue. Who worship with Chris Tomlin on their car stereos on Friday afternoon, and who worship with the same instrumentally accompanied songs on Sunday mornings.
And here’s a little bit more of the deal:
I know these people are already gathered around Harding’s table. They’re on Harding’s faculty and staff and on the President’s Council and involved with Associated Women for Harding. Their lives are intertwined with Harding, but they disagree with its doctrinally conservative track. And many of them are afraid to speak up, fearing a loss of job or place in Harding’s community.
And as I think about all of these things, the optimist within me rises up to say, “The day is coming.” There will come a day at Harding where there’s less exclusion …
and more inclusion.