Right-wing conservatives in the Church of the Nazarene have driven another scholar from their ranks.
The trustees of Northwest Nazarene University (NNU) announced on June 26 the termination of Dr. Tom Oord, tenured professor of theology, ordained Nazarene elder, and lifelong member of the Church of the Nazarene.
Why? After all, he was a tenured full professor who had been on the NNU faculty for 13 years. (Full disclosure: He and I were once colleagues at Eastern Nazarene College.) As I wrote back in April:
Oord was the university’s leading scholar, with 20 books on his CV; by most measures he was also the denomination’s leading scholar and one of a tiny number of Nazarene theologians whose reputations reached beyond evangelicalism. Oord had won multiple teaching awards and was wildly popular with students and respected by his colleagues. He had brought over a million dollars of grant money to the university—a remarkable accomplishment for a professor at a small, unsung liberal arts college.
Oord, however, was controversial.
He strongly supported evolution and had long been a target of creationists in the denomination. He embraced “open theism,” the view that God does not know the future but responds in love—rather than coercive control—to events as they occur, rather than foreordaining everything. Fundamentalist critics called him a heretic and had been vying for his termination for years.
Oord’s departure is the latest in the “brain drain” being experienced by Nazarene higher education as scholars are pushed out by fundamentalists opposed to change, or who leave because of the increasingly restrictive intellectual climate. The departure of scholars strengthens the hand of the fundamentalists, making it even harder for those who remain to avoid controversy. Indeed, reports out of NNU are that résumés have already started to circulate.
At the heart of the matter is the failure of the church to reconcile the modern world and its scientific theories and its faith, which rejects such concepts as evolution. Threatened by modernity, many Nazarenes zealously police fundamentalist doctrines and tend to favor inquisitions over scholarly inquisitiveness.
Oord’s case has been under review since March 31 when, on vacation in Hawaii with his wife, he received an email from NNU President David Alexander announcing that he was being terminated for economic reasons having to do with enrollment declines in the graduate division where Oord taught some of his classes.
Alexander’s announcement came in a year when NNU was enjoying record enrollment and had been issuing press releases celebrating the overall financial health of the institution. This fact, plus Alexander’s previous efforts to circumvent Oord’s tenure and terminate him, led to widespread skepticism about the legitimacy of the declared “financial emergency.”
Most perceived it as heavy-handed and disingenuous—invented to subvert tenure rules and get rid of a popular senior professor. Critics noted that only one faculty member in the entire institution was being terminated as a result of the financial emergency. Even if the financial emergency was real, it was highly irregular for a university president personally to choose which faculty member would be terminated. In a normal financially driven downsizing, the president would let a department head or dean identify the faculty member to be terminated.
In mid-April the faculty overwhelmingly voted “no-confidence” in Alexander, who then tried to salvage his presidency in a couple of poorly managed public meetings that did not go well and raised even more questions about his leadership. A review board consisting of trustees, faculty, and other college personnel was convened to investigate Alexander. Despite having just signed a four-year contract, Alexander suddenly resigned as president on May 12. He was quoted in a press release from the Church of the Nazarene, saying that “every organization hits strategic change points when a new leader can take up the mantle and move the organization forward in transformative ways.”
Before resigning, Alexander had put his March 31 termination of Oord “on hold.” Many expected Alexander’s decision to be overturned by the review committee, especially as the review process led so quickly to Alexander’s surprising resignation. However, the committee inexplicably elected to uphold Alexander’s decision to terminate Oord, even describing it as “without prejudice.” They also, however, gave Oord a temporary contract—full-time for one year and part-time for two more if he wants. The decision to keep Oord on the payroll next year makes Alexander’s declared “financial emergency” look even more fabricated.
Many NNU faculty and students feel betrayed by their institution. NNU speaks often and proudly of being rooted in Christian values and requires all of its employees to be practicing Christians. The university describes its “essential mission” as “the development of Christian character within the philosophy and framework of genuine scholarship.”
Steve Shaw, professor of political science at NNU for 36 years, described the recent events as a “sordid affair” and told me they have the “feel of a purge.” He laments that “NNU clearly will be a poorer institution if Tom is no longer around. He enriches our campus intellectually, theologically, and spiritually.” The hundreds of students wearing bright red “Support Tom Oord” T-shirts at the end of the semester clearly agreed.
Shaw expresses a larger concern, however, that Oord’s termination is “nothing novel in Nazarene higher education,” describing it as just the latest “blood-letting.” Indeed, the Oord story is eerily familiar to that of Richard Colling, who was forced out of Olivet Nazarene University in 2009 over the issue of evolution, which the majority of Nazarenes reject and many consider evil.
Colling, like Oord, was a lifelong Nazarene whose efforts to help his students make peace with evolution embroiled him in years of unpleasant controversy and charges that he was destroying the faith of his students. He told me he thinks that “no greater personal or professional blow could be leveled at a dedicated career Christian college professor than to be inaccurately accused of ‘eroding the faith of Christian college students.’”
Colling was a leading voice for science within the denomination until his departure. He worries that “The Church of the Nazarene sometimes appears to suffer from an inability to recognize and/or effectively grapple with the realities of our world.”
Oord, in his first public statement since the crisis began, echoes Colling’s view. “The most fundamental reason for the NNU crisis,” he wrote on his blog, “has to do with questions of change in our contemporary world. The fundamental issue at stake is the way we ask and seek to answer the biggest and most important questions of our time.”
NNU Dean of Theology Mark Maddix acknowledges the challenging denominational context in which Nazarene Universities operate. “It seems that the Church of the Nazarene and the broader evangelical community is becoming more reactive to scholars who are exploring the deep questions of science, faith, and religion,” he told me. As a result, “NNU struggles with balancing the exploration of truth with more conservative constituencies.” He noted that two other NNU theology scholars, C.S. Cowles and Michael Lodhal, had experienced “similar treatment” and been forced out.
“The Church of the Nazarene has become more conservative due to the influence of its more fundamentalist influences,” says Maddix. And this can have an effect on the bottom line of a University—an important concern when the news is filled with stories of small colleges and universities shutting down.
“There is no evidence that NNU will be stronger financially without Tom Oord,” Maddix notes. But “there have been rumors that if Tom stays at NNU that some donors would withhold their support of NNU.”
Randy Craker, the chairman of the Board of Trustees of NNU, was unavailable for comment for this article.
The departures of Oord, Colling, and many other scholars from their respective Nazarene colleges and universities—there are eight in all—reflect a denomination in crisis. This crisis provides a window into why young people are fleeing evangelical churches in droves. Oord was a popular professor with widespread student support at NNU. He understands himself as symbolic of the divide between “mostly younger people who want to engage difficult questions and pursue nontraditional answers” and “people who seem afraid of the hard questions.” Unfortunately, the latter group controls the levers of power—both political and financial.
The respected historian of American religion Randall Stephens told me that he is not surprised at the NNU decision and sees it as consistent with the “denomination’s conservative and isolationist turn.”
The decision to fire Oord, he said, “clearly shows that the Church of the Nazarene is less interested in the life of the mind and intellectual freedom than it is concerned with maintaining rigid, pseudo-orthodoxies or satisfying its most conservative, even fundamentalist constituents.”