I recently asked readers to submit questions to me they would like me to answer. If you would like to submit a question, please follow the instructions listed here.
Troy asked, “How Was the Quality of the Education You Received From an IFB College?”
I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan from the fall of 1976 to the spring of 1979. Midwestern was a small, unaccredited Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution started by Dr. Tom Malone — who had an earned doctorate in education from Wayne State University — in the 1950s. Dr. Malone called Midwestern “a character building factory.” It existed for the express purpose of training pastors, evangelists, and missionaries (and providing them with wives). Most of the professors were either men and women with degrees (and honorary doctorates) from Midwestern or men and women with degrees from other Fundamentalist Christian institutions. Malone preferred having Midwestern men teach Midwestern students. It was quite incestuous.
Were the classes I took at Midwestern inferior? I guess I would have to ask, inferior to what? I took some classes out at the local community college, and I found that they were every bit as superficial and worthless as some of the classes I took at Midwestern. I found at both institutions that the quality and depth of a particular class depended on the professor’s commitment to excellence. My world history professor at Midwestern basically read the book to the class and had us take tests. Yawn. I had similar classes at the community college. The best teachers were men and women who loved teaching and enjoyed engaging students in raucous discussions. Such discussions were rare at Midwestern because what teachers could teach and talk about was limited by the college’s commitment to certain doctrinal beliefs. For example, ministerial students were required to take one year of Greek. Good idea, right? However, the professor was only allowed to talk about certain manuscripts — those that supported the Midwestern’s King James-only position. Discussions about minority texts, alternate translations, etc., were verboten.
Generally, Midwestern’s classes were easy (as were the classes at the local community college). Part of the reason for this was that Midwestern was unaccredited. Students received NO financial aid. Most students worked their way through college. I worked a forty-hour-a-week job while taking classes full time. I also attended church three times a week, taught Sunday School, worked on a bus route and took out my girlfriend twice on the weekends. A truly rigorous academic program would have been too much for most students, considering all they had to do outside of school. As it was, most students washed out, and by their senior year, seventy-percent of students had dropped out of college. This wash-out rate, in the eyes of the school administration, was God winnowing the chaff from the wheat. Married, with a child on the way, and laid off from work, I dropped out in the spring of my junior year. That said, Dr. Malone publicly said of me at a pastor’s conference, Bruce, we would probably have ruined you had you stayed in college. At the time, I was pastoring a fast-growing IFB church in Southeast Ohio. I was told when I left college that God would NEVER use me, yet here I was pastoring a successful church — a sure sign that God was indeed using me.
Most of my theological education came post-Midwestern. I read countless religious tomes and studied the Bible for hours on end. I committed myself to being a student of the Bible, and spent two decades educating myself in the finer points of Christian belief. In one church I pastored, one of the congregants was a PhD candidate at Westminster Theological Seminary. I was able to intelligently converse with him, and I never felt educationally inferior. In my mind, it’s not the degrees that matter as much as what you know. In 2005, I saw a young family medicine doctor for treatment of Fibromyalgia. He was honest, telling me that his whole knowledge of Fibromyalgia came from one class period on the subject. He knew that I had read virtually every book on the condition, so he asked me to recommend books for him to read. He was a humble man who had sense enough to know when he didn’t know something. He quickly got up to speed and was able to meaningfully help me with my condition.
I learned very little “Bible” at Bible college. Ironic, I know, but most of my Bible classes were Sunday School level survey classes. Study the text, take a few tests, write a few papers, done. On to the next one. There were two classes that did help me tremendously as a pastor: speech class and homiletics. My speech teacher was Gary Mayberry, He taught me how to structure and deliver a speech. My homiletics teacher was a southern preacher by the name of Levi Corey. On the first day of class, he said, forget everything you learned in speech class. Corey taught me how to craft a sermon and deliver it with personality and passion. I owe much of my preaching success to him.
Evangelical colleges such as Midwestern do not exist to educate men as much as they exist to indoctrinate another generation in dogma. Unfettered intellectual inquiry is never permitted, and professors who dare to foster such a climate are summarily dismissed. The goal is purity of belief and practice. The only way to achieve this goal is to stifle teaching and discussion that challenges or contradicts the approved narrative.
Midwestern did give me one thing: Polly. Whatever my current opinion of Midwestern might be, I am indeed grateful that the college was the vehicle that brought Polly and me together. I may not have gotten a good education, but I sure got a wonderful wife, lover, and friend. I’ll take that any day!
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.
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It seems to me that you received exactly the type of education you were seeking at the time, and that it prepared you for being the type of pastor yiu wanted to be. So from that perspective, it was successful. What your education did not provide was exposure to different viewpoints or to people from different backgrounds. Throughout your life, though, you have sought out (and continue to seek out) education on your own. If you had attended a secular university, your path may have led you away from fundamentalist evangelical Christianity sooner – but I know people who attended secular universities who still believe fundy doctrines (but they don’t follow all the hardcore rules about dress, etc.).
(And while I am very proud of my hard work in attending a top tier university and am grateful to the university for admitting me, and there I was exposed to so many diverse views, I do firmly believe that people who want to can continue education outside a classroom setting. This is why I read so much – my grandma and mom instilled in me the importance of seeking out new knowledge throughout one’s lifetime – though I am sure they would have disapproved of the books I have read debunking Biblical inerrancy, arguing for atheism, etc.).
Hey OC! My husband and I read a lot too. Also watch intelligent Youtube videos on different science topics and have our brains stretched that way.
Anyway, your comment sparked an interesting memory. I went to a good state university before I converted in my early 20s to my now former denomination. Then I finished in my denomination’s regional college. Very small but interesting. It lacked a lot that the good state schools offered, but at the same time offered much more immediacy and intimacy with the professors.
Anyway, there were TWO great things I got from my alma mater. The first is my husband. (He’s now an atheist while I’m some undefinable something…probably universalist.) The second was that our denomination actually had some areas of theology that were less defined. For example, the exact nature of Christ. Fully human AND fully divine, or some other configuration. The other one that was big was the doctrine of salvation. Our church struggled as to whether it encouraged the Catholic doctrine or the Protestant doctrine.
These theological uncertainties from our church’s viewpoint actually caused me to begin thinking. Now it took years and difficult times with our church to leave it, but me attending my college accidentally planted the seeds of emancipation.
I really had no expectations since I was the first one in our family to pursue a college education. Midwestern — as most Fundamentalist institutions — sold itself as a world class college. They didn’t accept government aid and accreditation due to wanting to maintain a strict separation of church and state (a worthy ideal that most Evangelicals churches/ colleges no longer value).
My biggest surprise came when I took classes out at the local community college. Talk about underwhelming. Several of my classes were awesome. Great teachers, challenging course work. Most of the classes, however, were geared towards educating average high school students. My English class had a number of high school graduates who couldn’t write complete sentences. Down right awful.
I also learned that the community college wasn’t interested in providing a broad liberal arts education. The college focused on training students, preparing them to enter the local workforce. My favorite classes were sociology and psychology. Top notch professors, one of which is a friend of mine to this day. I talked to him about the lack of basic writing and grammar skills many of the students had. How in the hell did they graduate from high school, I asked. He told me their lack of basic skills was quite frustrating, but if he graded too harshly few of them would pass his classes. I thought, then, man it must be hard to read this stuff, hold your nose, and give students a passing grade.
Becky, that is interesting how your denomination’s university led you to start examining your beliefs. I wonder how often that happens? I guess it depends on the type of school and its teachings. I can’t imagine studying at a school like Bob Jones University would lead anywhere but further down the fundie rabbit hole, ur a less strict school might.
On a side note, my kids weren’t raised in religion at all. My 16 year old son seems to really want to stay away from religion. He was at a college showcase baseball tournament at Villanova recently, and he liked the campus. I mentioned that the school had its roots in Catholicism and that if he attended he would have to take a religion class or 2 – even if it is from the standpoint of comparative religion, something not doctrinal in nature. He said, no way. I told him that he would be avoiding some good schools like Boston College, Notre Dame, etc. But he won’t budge.
OC, I would think comparative religion would be useful. But that’s me. My sons had exposure at a local bus ministry. (I was still calling myself a Christian although I no longer attended, but with not so good health, didn’t want the hassle of going myself.) Still my oldest son penetrated the fiction of “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Once that happened he quickly lost interest. Since he was no longer going I stopped sending his little (then) brother.
Becky, I agree that comparative religion course would be useful. But he has a good friend from a devoutly Catholic family who doesn’t est meat on Fridays during Lent – my son thinks that is silly. Another friend is Jewish and doesnt eat pork – my son thinks that is silly. He has a few female classmates who are Muslim and west the hijab – he thinks that is silly. So I guess I can understand his perspective – he told me he considers religious stories to be no different from Harry Potter except not as well written and sometimes more harmful. I can’t really argue with that statement.
Bruce, that us interesting about the community college. I am not sure what the community colleges are like near us, though my friend’s son who has learning disabilities is taking courses there as he prepares to become an electrician.
I have a friend who teaches courses in Art History at one of the state schools in Connecticut. He bemoans the fact that the bulk of state funding goes to the gem of the state’s universities, UConn. The others (Eastern CT State U, etc) get the leftovers. He said lack of funding is reflected in the caliber of students the schools draw. He is appalled at the lack of basic writing skills most of these students have. He spends more time teaching students to write properly than an art history instructor should.
I live in California, which has two separate university systems. I got my BS in computer engineering in 1980 from a University of California campus; UC is the premier university system in California. I got my MS in geology from a California State University campus in 2013. Cal State schools are definitely not top-tier. But the difference in teaching was mind-bending. UC schools are research institutions that award PhDs, and a lot of teaching is done by graduate students. Even professors who are interested in teaching and good at it can only spend so much time doing it. Cal State schools are primarily educational institutions. Classes are smaller, professors are far more accessible, and are far more focused on teaching. I found my Cal State experience to be much better.
Between those two formal bouts of education, I took a lot of community college classes. Community colleges, at least in the area where I live, have multiple missions. They train some students for careers that don’t require four-year degrees. They provide technical classes for working people who need to update skills. They serve as basic (and often remedial) education for people who will eventually transfer to four-year institutions. They offer classes in subjects that really exist to enrich people’s lives, like art and music. That’s a lot of things to try to do, and they do them with varying degrees of success. I found that the classes I took were useful, but they were not general education classes, either.
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