An Unauthorized Official Statement from President Michael Sweeney of Emmanuel Christian Seminary Regarding Dr. Christopher Rollston

The previous post here I have dedicated as a “sacred space,” a place where students can share their appreciation for Dr. Rollston without appearing to be taking sides in the politics of this growing controversy. That, I think, is an important space. But the need for that space certainly does not negate the need to address the real problems Emmanuel Christian Seminary is facing, and the need to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of what is causing those problems. I understand that many students are frustrated and angry with the online controversy. Some are angry with me and others who have come to Dr. Rollston’s defense. Some are angry with Dr. Blowers. Some are angry with everybody. But the solution is not pious and vague appeals to so-called Christian unity. When an injustice is being done, the Christian thing to do is not to be unified with those responsible for the injustice. There can be no authentic unity where truth is in short supply. To that end, I am compelled by my conscience to tell a story that I really do not wish to tell.

On Wednesday, October 10th, 2012, I was contacted via email by a representative of the administration at Emmanuel Christian Seminary. This representative was a mediator, was well-intentioned, and was (and remains) utterly innocent with regard to this debacle that is Emmanuel’s handling of its proceedings against their tenured professor, Dr. Christopher Rollston.

This representative contacted me specifically to ask if I would be willing to publish on this website an official statement from Emmanuel Christian Seminary regarding the possible termination of Dr. Rollston. The expressed intention behind this move was to clarify what the Emmanuel administration thought to be misinformation spreading throughout the blogosphere, and, more importantly, to strike a tone more decidedly “Christian” than what they had witnessed thus far.

My initial response was surprise and confusion. Why would Emmanuel opt to publish an official statement on my website, rather than on their own? Nevertheless, I concluded that if this is the way they wanted to proceed, I would oblige, so long as they understood that I expected the statement to be forthright, as I stipulated to them when I agreed to publish their statement. The representative, in good faith and in perfect innocence, assured me that the statement would be forthright. So I agreed.

The following day, Thursday, October 11th, I received an email from Emmanuel, which included the statement. It was prefaced with the note, “Below is the statement. It is officially from Mike.” (That is, President Mike Sweeney.) The statement was given to me for publication on this website. By implication, I understood that it was expected I would publish the statement immediately, or at my earliest convenience.

I read the statement, and was instantly disappointed to find that it was not, in fact, an honest statement of the facts surrounding the Rollston situation. I immediately called Emmanuel and informed their representative that there were a handful of problematic and inaccurate claims made in President Sweeney’s statement. I pointed out in specifics what those problems were (some minor, some major), and it quickly became clear to me that Emmanuel’s representative was not privy to all of the details of the case at hand—a fact which I most certainly did not hold against the representative.

I said that I would not be favorably disposed to publishing the statement as it stood, and that it wouldn’t at any rate reflect very well on Emmanuel were it to be published. I suggested they consider addressing the problems, and then send a revision to me for publication. The representative thanked me, and asked me to hold off on publishing the statement pending further research, and another meeting of the administration tomorrow (Friday the 12th).

Friday came and went, followed by the weekend. On Monday, I awoke to learn that an article had been published at Inside Higher Education, an article that quoted portions of a letter given to Dr. Rollston by President Sweeney, detailing, among other things, the reasons for his dismissal from the seminary—a dismissal understood to be one “for cause.” Among the reasons offered in the disciplinary letter from Sweeney to Rollston, the article revealed, were two revolving centrally around financial issues. The letter alleged that Dr. Rollston’s tenure at the seminary made it more difficult to recruit new students, and more difficult to secure funding from certain donors. Not insignificantly, the IHE article revealed that Sweeney’s letter to Rollston also alleged that Rollston’s recent article on the Huffington Post was damaging Emmanuel’s “brand identity.”

That afternoon, I made another phone call to Emmanuel’s representative, asking if there had been any progress on a revised statement. I was told that circumstances had prevented opportunity to address it, but that I would be contacted soon.

Two days later, on Wednesday the 17th of October, the representative sent me another email. Apparently, at some point between Thursday, October 11th and Wednesday, October 17th, somebody at Emmanuel realized that it might be a good idea to discuss the notion of publishing an official statement from Emmanuel’s president on my website with Emmanuel’s legal representation.

The email sent to me read:

Thanks for your continued concern for Emmanuel. All lawyers involved have asked everyone not to make any public statements about the ongoing internal issues at Emmanuel. So thank you for your willingness to post a statement but in order to comply with everyone’s best interests and wishes we cannot discuss this in any form with anyone. Please delete the previous statement as we wish to respect everyone involved.

I’ll state right up front that I did not for a moment consider complying with their request to delete the statement. I did, however, consider long and hard, and with the help of a wide variety of counselors, what to do (or not do) with that statement. In fact, I had been considering this intently ever since I first read the statement last week.

My initial reaction to the statement was profound disappointment. But my primary concern after reading the statement pertained to how it would reflect on Emmanuel (very poorly), and upon my own integrity were I to publish the statement on their behalf. I immediately expressed my concern for Emmanuel’s well-being to their innocent representative, and I did so in all earnestness.

But the more I reflected on it, and struggled with it, the more my concern to protect Emmanuel in the short term evolved into a concern to protect Emmanuel in the long term. The more I wrestled with it (and it was an internal struggle that manifested in physical pain at its peak), the more my disappointment in President Sweeney mutated into a stable indignation. I felt sick at the prospect of betraying the good faith of Emmanuel’s representative, a person with whom I have enjoyed a good relationship over the years. But I felt even sicker that the president of the school I have loved so dearly would choose to issue a statement that misstates facts and betrays the good faith of Emmanuel’s students, its supporters, and the interested public.

Something needs to be made perfectly clear here. Last Thursday, President Sweeney forwarded to me a statement from his desk with the expectation that it would be published for the public, essentially immediately, on this website. It was not sent to me for my approval, or for my evaluation. It was sent to me for publication. If I had published it as expected, it would have been a matter of public record for a week now. Moreover, it would have been followed on Monday (little did I know) by the publication of an article that contains documented information contradicting at least one major claim made in President Sweeney’s statement. Of course, I was already aware of the information released that Monday, which is how I was able to spot the problem in the first place. But the point remains: had I not chosen to phone Emmanuel and suggest they reconsider publishing false information, it would have been published last Thursday with President Sweeney’s full consent. And I am now of the mind that I should have published it that same day, just as it was given to me. Why? Because it is not my job to act as President Sweeney’s conscience.

Thus, I have decided to publish the statement that was originally sent to me by Emmanuel Christian Seminary for publication on this website. Likewise, I have chosen to publish my corrections and suggestions made to Emmanuel’s representative, which were later confirmed publicly by the Inside Higher Ed article.

Officially from Mike

Hey Thom,

Below is the statement. It is officially from Mike.

—–

Emmanuel Christian Seminary has recently found itself in the center of a great deal of online controversy regarding Dr. Christopher Rollston. Many people have expressed great concern that the school treat Dr. Rollston fairly, with due regard toward his tenured position at Emmanuel. Because the issues we are dealing with have to do with an internal matter and therefore must remain confidential in order to be fair to both Dr. Rollston and the school, I can assure everyone of the following:

1. Our discussions are ongoing with the goal of reaching an amicable solution. To that end, we are following the procedures laid out in our Faculty Handbook to the letter. No decisions have been made at this time.

2. Regardless of what people have posted on the internet, at no time did Dr. Paul Blowers come to me asking that Dr. Rollston be disciplined or dismissed.

3. The online debate between Dr. Blowers and Dr. Rollston is not connected to our discussions with Dr. Rollston, nor is a disagreement over the content of Dr. Rollston’s Huffington Post article an issue in our discussions.

4. As a community of faith and learning, we are doing our utmost to work through a complex and difficult situation in a way that honors all people involved. We have always been a close community. The relationships we enjoy on our campus are very important to us. Dr. Rollston is very important to us. We covet your prayers as we move forward.

Michael Sweeney
President, Emmanuel Christian Seminary

—–

Thanks for helping us get the correct information out there.

God Bless,
[Name Redacted]

Here are two screenshots of the email, with the name and contact information of Emmanuel’s representative redacted.

Now, the statements made in the opening paragraph and in the fourth numbered paragraph are perfectly fine. But numbered paragraphs 1-3 contain statements and claims that range from problematic, to misleading, to blatantly and intentionally false. There is no conceivable way that the major falsehood, which I will address lastly, could have been unintentional. Even if it had been written originally by someone other than President Sweeney, he read it and put his name on it. We’ll come to that.

First, there is this claim: “we are following the procedures laid out in our Faculty Handbook to the letter. No decisions have been made at this time.” This claim may be true now, but this does not reflect the sentiment expressed in Sweeney’s letter to Rollston early on in this process. As quoted in the Inside Higher Education article, Sweeney said to Rollston, “If you feel that you are unwilling or unable to change any of this, and, frankly, I am not even sure it is possible for you to do so at this stage, I strongly suggest you increase your efforts at finding a position in a university where people are not studying for the ministry.” In other words, “we think you’re a lost cause, you have no business being around students who want to be ministers, and in our minds the decision has essentially already been made.” It was a “resign or be fired” ultimatum. Perhaps since then there has been a course correction. Perhaps it came to the attention of upper administration that they were not exactly following the procedures laid out in the Faculty Handbook. Hopefully, then, the claim that they are following the proper guidelines is now accurate.

Second, this: “Regardless of what people have posted on the internet, at no time did Dr. Paul Blowers come to me asking that Dr. Rollston be disciplined or dismissed.” Now, while I cannot be certain to whom President Sweeney is referring online, this is a denial so specific that it must be considered an evasion. Having read everything said about this affair on the internet, I’m not sure I recall a single person who has charged that Paul Blowers came to President Sweeney “asking that Dr. Rollston be disciplined or dismissed.” But what we do have on record are statements made on Facebook by Paul Blowers himself, one of which said that he had sent an article critical of Dr. Rollston to the President, the Dean, and one area chair. It may also be the case that Blowers played a part in bringing Rollston’s original article to the attention of the upper administration, framed by Blowers as something gravely detrimental to the school.

The other statement from Blowers said, and I quote, “We are looking at disciplinary action in the next few days. I still scratch my head trying to figure Rollston out. He seems to be totally atheological and now interested simply in selling the ‘Rollston brand,’ no matter how it might reflect back on Emmanuel.”

Note that Blowers does not say, “My guess is that this is inevitably leading to disciplinary action,” even though this is how he has subsequently characterized the meaning of his statement in repeated attempts at self-defense after being criticized for divulging information about an internal disciplinary matter to a former student and, inadvertently, to the public. What he said was, “We are looking at disciplinary action in the next few days.” Whether he may have intended to say something else or not, this is what he said, and this is what numerous students, former students, and onlookers saw when he published this statement on his Facebook wall. And of course, as Blowers and Tonto are both wont to ask, “What d’you mean ‘we,’ white man?” Is this the “editorial we”? Is it the “royal we”? Does it mean that Blowers was among those who were looking at disciplinary action?

What many of us also notice is that certain language appearing in President Sweeney’s letter to Dr. Rollston bears a remarkable resemblance to Blowers’ own language as it appeared on Facebook. On Facebook, Blowers referred disdainfully to the “Rollston brand.” Perhaps not coincidentally, the language of the “Emmanuel brand” and its rhetorical counterpart, Rollston’s “own personal marketing,” appear in Sweeney’s letter to Rollston, and Blowers has admitted to having some input.

I have never suggested that Blowers came to President Sweeney and recommended a specific course of action. But the reality that Blowers has played a significant role in directing matters toward that end, and in establishing Emmanuel’s case against Rollston, is hardly something that can be credibly denied at this point.

A third problem with Emmanuel’s statement is this: “The online debate between Dr. Blowers and Dr. Rollston is not connected to our discussions with Dr. Rollston.” The problem with this claim may seem like quibbling over semantics to some, but in my opinion this is a serious mischaracterization that has the effect of creating a false balance. The fact is, Dr. Rollston has engaged in no debate with Dr. Blowers, whether online or off, over these issues. Blowers has engaged in debate with anybody and everybody except Dr. Rollston. Dr. Rollston has remained judiciously silent throughout this whole affair, for reasons which are now obvious to all of us with the appearance of the Inside Higher Education article. To characterize this as an “online debate between Dr. Blowers and Dr. Rollston” is simply false, and a misleading mischaracterization which I do not believe to be insignificant.

A fourth and final problem with Emmanuel’s statement is this: “nor is a disagreement over the content of Dr. Rollston’s Huffington Post article an issue in our discussions.” This statement is, in no uncertain terms, false. It is not simply a mischaracterization; it is a lie. It is a very troubling lie, and it is a lie that could not have been unintentional. As revealed last Monday in the Inside Higher Education article, President Sweeney’s letter to Rollston does in fact bring up the Huffington Post article as one of the causes justifying termination proceedings against Rollston. A whole paragraph is devoted to the subject of Dr. Rollston’s Huffington Post article and his Facebook posts. In fact, the letter mentions the Huffington Post article more than once, and does in fact express disagreement with Dr. Rollston’s conclusions.

But of course, Sweeney’s letter resorts to obvious mischaracterization of Rollston’s conclusions in his Huffington Post article. Sweeney’s letter alleges Dr. Rollston’s article made the claim that “the Bible, as a whole, marginalized women,” and that its conclusion was, “we cannot put our trust in ‘biblical values.’” This is of course completely false. Rollston did not argue that the Bible “as a whole,” marginalized women. He argued that a majority of texts relevant to the question of women’s status in ancient Israel reflected patriarchy, while a minority of texts pushed back against this ideology in various ways. In the article, he identified eleven examples of such push backs. Moreover, he did not conclude that we cannot put our trust in “biblical values.” He concluded that patriarchy was one biblical value among many (and who in their right mind can deny this?), and that this specific biblical value is not something we ought to value. (Does President Sweeney wish to defend the patriarchal institutions established throughout much of the Bible, and argue that they should remain in force within modern Christianity?) Clearly Dr. Rollston’s article showed that he saw a clash of values within the Bible, and demonstrated that he found some of those values to be morally praiseworthy. President Sweeney and the experts in hermeneutics at Emmanuel should be defending him from those who have plainly misinterpreted his article, not engaging in the same careless and sweeping mischaracterizations themselves.

More to the point, clearly this displays that there was discussion of and disagreement over the contents of Dr. Rollston’s Huffington Post article in connection to disciplinary proceedings. So when President Sweeney releases a statement in which he flatly denies that any “disagreement over the content of Dr. Rollston’s Huffington Post article” was “an issue in our discussions,” we know he is lying. I have spent a great deal of time trying to imagine a charitable interpretation of this claim that does not amount to an intentional lie, and I have been unable to do so. President Sweeney’s own letter to Rollston flatly contradicts what he says in the official statement sent to me for publication; and it is my understanding that the letter was a summary of the discussion that occurred in a meeting between Dr. Rollston and three male authority figures, one of whom was President Sweeney. Thus, President Sweeney did, in fact, discuss the Huffington Post article with Dr. Rollston, in connection with disciplinary proceedings, and this is clearly at odds with Sweeney’s proposed public characterization of events sent to me.

Even if I could not point to that meeting, or to that letter, as evidence against this claim, does President Sweeney really expect the public to find this claim the slightest bit credible? Are we to imagine that the timing of the disciplinary action in relation to the conservative furor over his Huffington Post article was merely a coincidence?

Of course, the real question I am having trouble answering is why President Sweeney would feel the need to lie about this in the first place. It seems to me so unnecessary. If everyone in the public can see that the Huffington Post article was an instigating factor in the disciplinary proceedings, and if in fact it was the subject of discussion in those proceedings, what is the point of denying this? If the concern is to try to relay that there are other factors involved, why not just say that? “The Huffington Post article has been only one among several issues in our discussions with Dr. Rollston.” If he had said that, it could be considered a true statement, and would disabuse the public of any notion that Dr. Rollston was being terminated merely for writing a single article, rather than, say, in large part to appease conservative donors and recruits.

But President Sweeney didn’t say that. Instead, for whatever reason, he chose to deny the truth in an official public statement. I simply cannot get my head around that. Do I think the will to deceive was malicious in character? No, I don’t. I’m not trying to paint a portrait of Sweeney, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I don’t think it’s a serious question of moral character, but acknowledging that Sweeney is a good man does not excuse his decision to lie here. It seems to me to be evidence rather of a man who is just lost in his role as president—that is, this is perhaps evidence of incompetence (as would be asking a blogger to release an official Emmanuel statement).

As we have watched this whole debacle unfold, first with Paul Blowers engaging in public denigration of his colleague, then with Blowers’ public disclosure of confidential information concerning disciplinary proceedings about to be taken against Rollston, then with Blowers’ schoolyard-bully retorts to his online critics (e.g., “Get out of the cheap seats!” ad nauseum), we watched and waited in vain for President Sweeney to step in and put a leash on Blowers, who was doing more to damage Emmanuel’s reputation than anything Rollston could conceivably have ever done.

Then, when I was sent a deeply problematic “statement” described as “officially” from President Sweeney, to be published on my website, I had come firsthand into solid confirmation of my suspicions of incompetence. No matter whose idea it may have been, how incompetent would President Sweeney have to be to approve the publication of an official statement from Emmanuel, with his name on it, on my blog! Does this evoke a sense of direction? Does this communicate a sense of properly handling a potentially damaging scandal? What is more, to include in that statement a number of mischaracterizations, evasions, and an outright lie—a lie he should have known full well could be proved false at any time—I ultimately concluded that President Sweeney appears to be in over his head, and is having a great deal of trouble managing the combination of this financial crisis, this ideological controversy over the direction of the seminary, and now what appears to be the wrongful termination of Professor Rollston, in anything remotely resembling a competent manner. It seems to me that President Sweeney has made mistake after mistake after mistake, and in doing so, has put Emmanuel’s reputation and its viability in serious jeopardy.

And ultimately, this is what concerns me, because I very much love Emmanuel. It is a school with an incredible community of students and faculty, from which my wife and I found enrichment for three years of our lives. It was in the Emmanuel Village that my daughter learned to talk, and her worldview was shaped in significant ways by regular visits to the offices of Dr. Elolia and Dr. Rollston, both of whom lavished gifts on her every chance they could. Moreover, Emmanuel has a faculty of an extraordinary caliber for a seminary of its size and stripe. I have always boasted about the education I received at Emmanuel, and have felt pride in my association with it. But now all of that is clearly in jeopardy, and it cannot be pinned on Dr. Rollston, who is one of the finest and most accessible professors and mentors the school has ever had. The institution I have loved seems to be in danger of disintegrating before our very eyes, and this appears to be due in large part to an apparently incompetent administration that is demonstrably unwilling to reign in a professor (Blowers) who is more interested in publicly asserting his jaundiced opinions of his colleague (while touting, out of the other side of his mouth, his binders full of historical critics) than preserving the integrity of his employer. Surely other professors must now be acutely aware that their academic freedom and their job security are always potentially at odds with one another. I can imagine that the atmosphere within the school must be fairly toxic. And Dr. Rollston’s potential departure is not going to solve Emmanuel’s problems; rather, it has opened the floodgates. And I mourn.

And I cannot help but think that perhaps this encroaching apocalypse, this end of Emmanuel as we know it, is not a financial crisis or a crisis of ideology, so much as it is a crisis of leadership. I hope to God that someone can prove me wrong.

7 thoughts on “An Unauthorized Official Statement from President Michael Sweeney of Emmanuel Christian Seminary Regarding Dr. Christopher Rollston

  1. Hi, John.

    It is a very sad state of affairs right now. I would disagree though that there’s no such thing as honest evangelical scholarship. I think there are some honest evangelical scholars out there, more conservative than I to be sure, but honest nonetheless, who take issue with the narrow Evangelicalism characterized by dishonest apologetics represented by the likes of Copan, Craig, and their ilk. Roger Olson comes to mind. Certainly, I think he’s too conservative on a number of issues, but I don’t think at all that he’s a dishonest scholar. I’m not sure that I would characterize Emmanuel as an Evangelical institution, at least as far as the lion’s share of the faculty goes. It’s true that the RM has by and large sold out to Evangelicalism, but Emmanuel’s faculty for the most part stands apart from that trend. There is certainly a plethora of firmly honest scholars there. With the exception of Blowers (who is being dishonest in his characterization of Rollston’s arguments) and a few others, Emmanuel has a faculty I can be very proud of. The scholarship at Emmanuel isn’t the problem; it seems to have more to do with conservative donors, who certainly aren’t scholars. Admittedly, there is a struggle at the moment between more conservative-leaning and more liberal-leaning voices there, but until recently that has been part of the good health of Emmanuel’s strong faculty.

  2. What a sad mess. I do not claim to know much about Emmanuel Christian Seminary (e.g., I have received books by interlibrary loan from their library), but I do hope that the leadership comes to a greater appreciation of Christopher Rollston.

  3. Conservative donors make honest evangelical scholarship nearly impossible at institutions that depend on these donors then. ;-)

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