Among the last of the best . . .


(For the audio version of today’s post, click here.)

This morning, Southern Baptists say goodbye to one of the good guys. At 10:30 a.m. on the campus of Dallas Baptist University, the friends, former colleagues, and family of Dr. William B. Tolar will gather to celebrate his life and ministry. Tolar died this past Saturday at age 90 after a hard-fought battle with cancer.

For 36 years, Bill Tolar taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. During his long tenure, he rose to serve as dean of the School of Theology, Academic Vice President, Provost, and interim president in the aftermath of the 1994 firing of Russell Dilday. A lean, energetic native Louisianan, Tolar was a captivating lecturer, a much-sought after preacher, a respected scholar, and a fierce advocate for his faculty and students.

As a theologian, Tolar joined with Southern Seminary President Al Mohler, Beeson Divinity School’s Timothy George and the late Carl F.H. Henry to serve on the SBC’s theological study committee in the mid-1990s. Their report, issued at the Houston convention, reaffirmed the 1963 Baptist Faith & Message, expounded on its articulations of scripture authority and church autonomy, yet declined to offer a new confession of faith or revision to the 1963 document.

As an administrator, Tolar stood alongside some of Southwestern’s legendary faculty: men like James Leo Garrett, John Newport, Curtis Vaughan, Leon McBeth, W.R. Estep, C.W. Brister, and Roy Fish. When conflict between former Southwestern professor Farrar Patterson and Dilday boiled over in the mid-1980s, it was Bill Tolar who stepped in to mediate. Coursing through his veins was Southwestern blood. He loved the school, and for most of his life and ministry, the school loved him back.

Which is why it troubles us that Tolar has chosen Dallas Baptist University — where he served as an adjunctive faculty member after retiring from SWBTS — as both the site of his memorial service and the designated recipient of memorial gifts to a scholarship fund named for him and his wife. There was a time when Southwestern might have been the obvious location for his funeral and the beneficiary of his estate. But for reasons known to God, Dallas Baptist is where his heart was in the end.

Was it because Tolar saw something at Southwestern that disheartened him? Could it be that having been through the forced departures of two presidents in the span of a decade, the ham-fisted enforcements of another president, and the continued enrollment declines and deep indebtedness of the school left him exhausted? Did he — observing the decline and sensing the ostracism — determine not to throw good money after bad, despite nearly four decades of service to the school?

Southwestern Seminary is a shell of its former self in the wake of the last fifteen years; of this, there is no doubt. The numbers do not lie. There is a sense among many alumni and retired faculty — and probably some current faculty — that the once-respectable institution has been hollowed out, its mission sidetracked and academic reputation sullied, and its administrative structures built on a system of patronage and spoils rather than competence.

Today, Bill Tolar will be buried. With his death, Southwestern is losing another faithful supporter whose contributions to the school — while vouchsafed in heaven — have been purposefully written out of its history since the summer of 2003.

On the campus of Southwestern, there is now a 3,500 seat chapel which — on a good day — is a quarter full. Around that chapel building are windows, purporting to depict the men and women who made Southwestern great.  Among those depicted are Jerry Falwell, four Brumbelows, and two Ledbetters. Former SBC President and Southeastern alumnus Johnny Hunt has a window, as do New Orleans alumni Chuck Kelley and Jerry Vines. The retired editor of The Christian Index, also an alumnus of Southeastern, Gerald Harris, has a window. There is even a window for a dog.

But there is no window for Bill Tolar. Perhaps he wasn’t heroic enough.

There is a great scene in the 1985 movie, The Color Purple, where the character played by Whoopi Goldberg — Miss Celie — takes a knife to the throat of her husband, Albert, who is portrayed by Danny Glover. Through years of marriage, he has raped her, beaten her, and insulted her at every turn. Despite his abuses, she kept raising his children, cleaning his house, washing his clothes, and even shaving his neck.

And then, at the dinner table one day, she’s had enough of his abuse. She stands up, and threatens to cut his throat until she’s pulled off by family members who warn her that he’s not worth it.

As she departs, Miss Celie puts a curse on Albert: “Until you do right by me, everything you even think about is going to fail.”

And so it is with Southwestern Seminary. Until the school — and by that, I mean the school’s trustees — do right by the faculty and staff who have been underpaid, overworked, and under appreciated through the past fifteen years of captivity, the school has little chance of recovery.

Perhaps in death, Bill Tolar is doing one last, great service to Southwestern Seminary. He’s letting them know that forgotten faculty can find other schools to serve. Longtime supporters can find other endowments to fund. And young ministers can find other seminaries to attend.

Southwestern has taken men like Dr. Tolar for granted for too long.  Here’s hoping that is about to change.