In response to concerns from Mennonite Brethren constituents, Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University has removed its seminary’s president and severed ties with three high-profile pastors.
FPU announced Aug. 15 that Terry Brensinger, president of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary since 2013, will leave his administrative role and become professor of pastoral education in January after a semester-long sabbatical.
The university also announced that Greg Boyd, Bruxy Cavey and Brian Zahnd — Anabaptist-oriented pastors who served as visiting lecturers — are no longer connected with the seminary’s Master of Arts in Ministry, Leadership and Culture program.
Formerly known as Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, FPBS changed its name when it merged with FPU in 2010.
In an interview, Brensinger said his removal and the release of Boyd, Cavey and Zahnd were changes involving the university president and denominational leaders.
“These weren’t my choices or decisions,” he said. “The seminary president reports to the university president since the merger.”
A university press release attributed the changes to concerns by “a growing number of pastors and congregations” about the direction of the seminary and “some teaching positions of visiting lecturers.”
Other FPU representatives declined to elaborate. But Brensinger said constituents’ concerns centered on Boyd’s theology.
Boyd, who describes himself as an Anabaptist, is senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn. He is author of the best-selling book, The Myth of a Christian Nation, and God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God. The latter questions God’s total knowledge of the future by advocating “open theism.”
Brensinger said the book hit a sore spot with some people, and threats were made to withhold funding.
“It wasn’t a disagreement so much about theological perspectives, but of the right and ability of a graduate school to talk about certain things,” he said. “. . . I think it was primarily associated with Greg. If this would have happened before social media, this probably wouldn’t have happened at all, but people check Greg Boyd and see he wrote this and this.”
Tim Sullivan, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches Board of Faith and Life, confirmed Boyd’s open theism advocacy started raising concerns from pastors about two years ago, roughly when the program began.
Statements about the atonement were also a factor with Zahnd, lead pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Mo., and Cavey, teaching pastor of The Meeting House, a Be in Christ congregation in the Toronto area with weekly attendance of about 5,000.
“One of the biggest concerns was it felt as though the seminary was beginning to lose touch with where the bulk of the denomination is, in terms of what was being promoted and the visibility of those three visiting professors,” Sullivan said.
Boyd said he learned about the developments in early August, a week before some participants in the program were set to gather at The Meeting House.
“I was just told that some of the bigger donors were getting some pressure from watchdogs of truth and righteousness or something, and the school’s funding was threatened, so I and Bruxy and Brian had our heads on the chopping block,” he said.
“It was unfortunate. The program was really good, and we had such high-quality students. The whole atmosphere was very kingdom-oriented, and it’s just sad that my view of the future got us canned for it.”
He said he affirms God’s omniscience and omnipotence, but open theism holds that future details are outside that scope.
“It’s nothing to do with the scope of God’s knowledge,” he said. “He knows perfectly everything that exists.”
The online, three-year Master of Arts in Ministry, Leadership and Culture program was started in 2016 to be uniquely evangelical and Anabaptist. In an April 2017 FPU article in MWR, program director Brian Ross, assistant professor of pastoral ministries, said: “We are unapologetically Anabaptist in theology and values. It just bubbles up in everything we do.” He described the three visiting lecturers as “possibly the three most influential leaders in neo-Anabaptism.”
Neo-Anabaptism is a recent movement within evangelicalism influenced by theologians from within Anabaptist traditions.
The roughly two dozen students in the program all work in ministry and represent the Mennonite Brethren, Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Church Canada and the Brethren in Christ (known as Be in Christ in Canada).
Although he had completed 75 percent of the program, student Andrew Shaffer withdrew when he heard about the changes. He and 21 of 23 other students in his cohort signed a letter to FPU President Joseph Jones stating changes at the seminary stand in opposition to the way of Jesus.
“While we understand the university’s need for financial support, we believe that the university has clearly communicated to us through these changes that people with financial power are more important than FPU’s stated values of being a place of prophetic, Anabaptist witness that seeks academic excellence by engaging in scholarly dialogue,” Shaffer wrote by email.
“We also commended the university for taking the initial risk of being innovative with the technology, voices and structure in this program, which is why these changes are so disheartening.”
Shaffer, who is pastor for transformation and administration at Pangea Church, a Brethren in Christ congregation in Seattle, said he heard 11 out of 18 students entering the program this fall had withdrawn.
He said most students in his cohort were drawn to the program because of the involvement of the three visiting lecturers, who were careful to note that opinions on controversial matters were not doctrine.
“The opportunity to learn from them is certainly what clinched it for me,” Shaffer wrote. “The way that they were suddenly removed with little to no dialogue with them or the students contributed just as much to my loss of trust in FPU and my decision to withdraw.”
In the Aug. 15 release, Jones said the MB community is called to peacemaking and reconciliation.
“Even in times we fall short, we attempt to teach, model and practice this in our communities,” he said. “Affirming these values does not prevent disagreement but provides a foundation to build trust in working relationships.”
Boyd lamented he wasn’t included in conversations about the decisions.
“I was never asked any questions about this, nor Bruxy, nor Brian, nor any students — no questions were asked,” he said. “It’s a very nonrelational way of going about it. It’s just not very Anabaptist.”
Relationship with USMB
Atonement perspectives and open theism can be relatively murky topics for some, including how they may or may not relate to the USMB Confession of Faith.
“The answer is both confessional and relational, whether the seminary was going to be able to lead and train and maintain a relationship with churches going forward,” Sullivan said.
While most seminaries are sponsored by denominations as a means of strengthening those bodies, it can also be common for academic centers to challenge such groups. In 2010, MB seminary associate professor of mission and theology Mark Baker issued an apology for misunderstandings that arose from his critique of the penal substitutionary theory of atonement.
Among the Mennonite Brethren, the situation is made more complex by the number of pastors who do not come from an Anabaptist background.
“I’m profoundly an evangelical who was a United Methodist who became an Anabaptist in college,” Brensinger said. “And at times I’ve found my Anabaptism is a liability as opposed to a welcome strength. . . .
“What does it mean to be an evangelical with a small ‘e’? What does it mean to be Anabaptist? How are those things synthesized? How can conversations be held? It seems the denomination is much more diverse in that sense — I don’t want to say it negatively — with larger, growing constituencies that are not Anabaptist anymore.”
Boyd said he had received letters of support from MB pastors apologizing and worrying about their denomination losing Anabaptist distinctives and acclimating to American fundamentalism. He described Brensinger’s administrative demotion as “tragic” and “discouraging.”
“They stayed true to Anabaptism. They haven’t changed,” he said of the seminary. “What’s changed is the denomination, and I’m scared the seminary is going to change because of it.”