by Matthew McAffee and Matthew Steven Bracey
The mission of Welch College is to educate leaders to serve Christ, His church, and His world through biblical thought and life. Our institution has faithfully executed this mission now for seventy-five years. The names, faces, and location have all changed considerably since L. C. Johnson initiated this project in Free Will Baptist higher education in 1942, but the mission has not. This mission is grounded in the Scriptures, driving the entire curriculum as the foundation of all learning.
As the denominational college, Welch provides a regionally accredited education for our Free Will Baptist young people, preparing them to serve Christ in both Christian and secular vocations. We are committed to training pastors, youth pastors, missionaries, and church musicians, while at the same time equipping business men and women, nurses, scientists, teachers, journalists, counselors, musicians, athletic directors, and other professionals to bear Christian witness in the workplace.
Although the mission has been carried out for the past seventy-five years, it has not lost its relevance for today. Our success for the next seventy-five years and until the Lord’s return will largely depend upon our ability to communicate this mission to each successive generation. In this essay, we will describe how we are cultivating Welch’s mission today and what that means for its future caretakers.
I. A Biblical and Theological Education
In the words of founding president L. C. Johnson, “Bible college education would integrate all true knowledge with the Word of God. Bible college education is based upon the belief that the Word of God is true and the mind is free to discover all truth as it relates to its teachings.” The place to begin formulating a distinctly Christian education is the Holy Scriptures, the verbally inspired, inerrant words of God. By this we do not mean that knowledge cannot be discovered from other sources, since all of God’s creation declares His glory (Ps 19:1-6). Because “there is no speech or words” in this kind of revelation, however, it’s not always specific in what it tells us. We need verbal revelation to instruct us about the nature of God’s glory on display under the heavens.
Unfortunately, the problem isn’t simply a lack of specificity. Our depraved nature as sinners under God’s judgment distorts our interpretation of general revelation. Our minds have become darkened by sin, keeping us from correctly understanding the nature of things. Furthermore, this distorted understanding is too much for us to overcome—we cannot! Therefore, we need the external light of God’s revelation to enter into our world and illuminate our appraisal of the world we live in.
All education needs a lens. The lens for a distinctly Christian education is none other than the words of Scripture. For other educational movements, the lens is different. For instance, the lens for much of modern education is empiricism. For that worldview, the basis for all knowledge is the five senses. Sensory data constitutes all truth. But limiting knowledge in this manner excludes divine revelation.
For Christians this limitation will not do. We need God’s revelation to overcome our depraved perspective that distorts our understanding of the self, others, and creation. All disciplines of knowledge need to be filtered through the lens of Scripture in order for us to interpret them correctly. Johnson thus wrote, “Free Will Baptist Bible College believes that faith in God and His Son Jesus Christ as Savior and the Scriptures as His infallible Word is no hindrance, but an asset, in acquiring education.”
II. The Christian Worldview across the Curriculum
Next, Welch College builds upon this biblical-theological foundation by emphasizing the Christian worldview. The worldview influence has been handed down in letter and in spirit from luminaries such as John L. Welch, L. C. Johnson, Charles and Laura Thigpen, F. Leroy Forlines, Robert Picirilli, John Carter, Darrell Holley, and many others. For example, Holley points to the importance of Welch College educating students academically, spiritually, and culturally or aesthetically. Forlines says that the student’s worldview must answer the “inescapable questions of life.” This emphasis on worldview appears not simply in writings of Welch’s leaders but also in its curriculum.
Welch’s academics are spread across four departments: the School of Theology, the Department of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Music, and the Department of Teacher Education. Housed within these departments are more than forty majors of study. Each and every program of study includes the Welch College Core. This is a “general education core curriculum designed by the faculty to integrate the Christian worldview across the curriculum . . . to help our students see the whole of life from a Christian perspective, what we often call the Christian worldview.” Included in this core are objectives relating to critical thinking and communication, the great tradition, the arts and culture, humanity and the human environment, and leadership. Thus, all students take courses such as the following:
Systems in Biological Science
English Grammar, Usage, and Composition
Masterpieces of World Literature
History of Western Civilization
Leadership and Calling: Personal Development and Leadership Principles
Christianity, Culture, and Worldview
Music Introduction and Appreciation
Lifetime Fitness and Activity
Marriage and the Family
Welch College students take about fifty hours of courses based in its core. Its worldview influence doesn’t end there, thought, but carries over into its majors, tracks, and emphases.
III. Equipping Leaders: Christian Service and Local Partnerships
Not only does Welch College shape students’ worldviews through its curriculum, it also does so through its emphasis on Christian service and living. In “How Broad the Umbrella?” Picirilli discusses his philosophy of Christian education. He explains that, among its distinctive marks, Christian education should emphasize “a Biblical view of service.” This is what Welch College is all about. The college’s original purpose, according to its Charter of Incorporation registered in 1945, was to devote itself to “‘the promotion and impartation of higher Biblical education’” and to equip “‘Christian workers, teachers, ministers, and missionaries of both sexes for Christian service.’” The current mission statement, stated above, also captures this central nature of Christian service at Welch.
How does Welch College equip its students for leadership? As noted above, its curriculum is concentrated heavily in leadership and professionalism. Among the topics covered in the Leadership and Calling courses are lifelong learning, leadership principles, spiritual formation and leadership, lay leadership in the church, personal and professional etiquette, self-management, problem-solving, organizational and team leadership, organizational finance, and community involvement and leadership.
Second, students attend conferences throughout their matriculation, including Welch College’s World Missions Conference, Forum/Bible Conference, the Leroy Forlines Lectures, and the Free Will Baptist Theological Symposium. Third, students attend chapel four days a week to worship God through song, prayer, and preaching. Throughout the college’s history, thousands of Welch students have attested to the formative quality of these services, current authors included.
Fourth, dormitory students attend LifeGroups several times each week. Student prayer captains lead groups of guys or gals in devotion and prayer. Fifth, Welch encourages students to seek leadership opportunities in college organizations, which include nine student societies, the Global Missions Fellowship, class and student body government, and others. Thus, not only are leadership skills learned in teacher-student, preacher-congregant, and mentor-mentee relationships, they are also developed in peer-to-peer relationships.
Sixth, students also learn leadership by boots-on-the-ground service. Through Christian service, students volunteer in local churches, non-profits, and other service organizations. These experiences are significant for students, and they are helpful to the community. Welch College has inherited a tradition of loving and serving its neighbors, and its new location in Gallatin, Tennessee, affords many new opportunities for Christian service.
By emphases and structures such as these, the leadership of Welch College guards against losing its soul to gain the whole world. It guards against the sad tales told in James Tunstead Burtchaell’s The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches; this book chronicles seventeen Christian-turned-apostate colleges and universities. Welch takes seriously its charge from its denomination and, more importantly, its Lord, Jesus Christ.
IV. Rooted in Our Distinct Past
With these things in mind, what is the way forward? To some degree, the way forward is to look backward. This idea may seem counterintuitive to some and downright wrongheaded to others. It is, however, a crucial factor in the ongoing success of Welch College.
We have a rich heritage that needs to be cultivated and passed on to future generations. It’s important to understand who we are as an institution and to be the very best we can to the glory of God. Failure to understand our distinction as a Free Will Baptist College leads to “wannabeism”—the incessant desire to become something we’re not.
If our primary goal is to become more like other institutions, successful as they may be, we’ve already forfeited our mission. Mark William Roche explains, “[I]nstitutions often shift their mission and seek to race after the most prestigious colleges and universities, which have powerful allure. . . [T]he tendency exists simply to imitate those that garner the highest rankings. The result is often less diversity in goals and greater diversity in quality.”
In other words, one of the quickest ways for us to undermine the integrity of Welch College as an institution of higher learning is to chase after our peers for success. This reduces the quality of our education. Furthermore, we disregard our founding mission.
So what is our distinctive heritage that needs ongoing cultivation? For one, Welch College is a Free Will Baptist college that was founded to serve the educational needs of the Free Will Baptist denomination. It is a caretaker of the Free Will Baptist tradition. We must keep going back to our own Free Will Baptist thinkers who have handed this tradition down to us and pass it on to our successors. Rearticulating and repackaging this tradition in classrooms and books will strengthen the Free Will Baptist Church. Johnson understood well the relationship between the classroom and the future of our churches: “If you want to know what a denomination will be doing two years from now, all you have to do is to find out what is happening in the classrooms of its colleges and seminaries today.”
The Free Will Baptist tradition has been drinking from an even older well, however. We are Reformed Arminians, recalling “views of Arminius himself and his original defenders.” F. Leroy Forlines and Robert E. Picirilli drew from this tradition in their formulation of Free Will Baptist doctrine. J. Matthew Pinson has likewise drawn on our English General Baptist forbears in his own use of Free Will Baptist theologians Forlines and Picirilli. A new generation of Welch professors and scholars stand ready to make their own contributions to the cultivation of this heritage for the years ahead. Cultivation of our Reformation Arminianism not only preserves the Free Will Baptist movement, but it also makes an important contribution to the broader evangelical faith.
Before ascending to heaven, Jesus issued a mission to the disciples gathered on the mountain. Welch College has received this mission and desires to steward it faithfully. From its inception, Welch has emphasized the importance of Christ-centered mission, aiming to educate leaders to serve Christ, His church, and His world through biblical thought and life. Our success or failure will be measured by that standard. We are grateful to God for what Welch College has bequeathed to us, and we pray for its continued commitment to God for His glory.
About the Authors: Matthew McAffee and Matthew Steven Bracey serve as the Provost and Vice Provost at Welch College. McAffee is married with four children, and Bracey is married with one feline. They both love Welch College.
 L. C. Johnson, “From My Desk . . .” in Free Will Baptist Bible College Bulletin (Nov., 1962).
 L.C. Johnson, “From My Desk . . .” in Free Will Baptist Bible College Bulletin (June-July, 1960).
 Darrell Holley, “The Role of the Academic Life in the Mission of Free Will Baptist Bible College” (Paper delivered to the faculty of Free Will Baptist Bible College on Monday, November 2, 1998), .
 F. Leroy Forlines, The Quest for Truth: Answering Life’s Inescapable Questions (Nashville: Randall House, 2001), 18.
 Welch College Catalog 2016-2017, “The Welch College Core” (Nashville: Welch College), 50.
 Ibid., 50-52.
 Ibid., 53.
 Robert E. Picirilli, “How Broad the Umbrella?” (Nashville: unpublished, ), .
 Welch College Catalog 2016-2017, “Institutional Purpose,” 7; italics added.
 Welch College Catalog 2016-2017, “Course Descriptions,” 144.
 See James Tunstead Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
 Mark William Roche, Realizing the Distinctive University: Vision, Values, Strategy and Culture (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 72.
 A fine example of this kind of work is the recent volume of collected essays in honor of F. Leroy Forlines: Matthew Steven Bracey and W. Jackson Watts, The Promise of Arminian Theology: Essays in Honor of F. Leroy Forlines (Nashville: Randall House, 2016).
 L. C. Johnson, “From My Desk . . .” in Free Will Baptist Bible College Bulletin (Sep., 1963).
 Robert E. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House, 2002), i. For more on the meaning “Reformation Arminianism,” see Picirilli’s discussion on pp. i-iv.
 J. Matthew Pinson, Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition (Nashville: Randall House, 2015).