Education

Northwest Nazarene professor shares views on God, loses academic freedom

Why does God allow evil?

How come my loved one dies of cancer, even though I pray for recovery, but others survive without faith or prayer?

Where did creation come from?

These are the kinds of tough theological questions that many people spend their lives wrestling with.

The Rev. Thomas Jay Oord wondered about these questions, too. But the answers he gave likely mean the popular theology professor at Northwest Nazarene University never works at a Nazarene university again.

Oord, who pushed against the boundaries of Nazarene beliefs, will leave NNU in 2018 through a negotiated parting of the ways after he was first told he would be laid off in 2015.

School officials say his leaving is part of a plan to shift resources in times of tight budgets. Many others believe he’s going because of what he thinks, says and writes.

The Oord saga is a story of academic freedom, religious liberty, theological differences and higher education economics. But at the heart of Oord’s story is the very American question of self expression in the workplace. From politics to the pew, people want to have their say. The conflict comes when the boss sees a need to draw a line.

The question about how and where to draw the boundaries on free speech and diverse thought has prompted NNU to do its own soul-searching. The 103-year-old university with 2,000 students is rethinking its leadership structure and its commitment to academic freedom.

Oord has not spoken widely about his ordeal at NNU until now. He told the Statesman that his severance package included a cash amount he cannot discuss, but that he is otherwise free to tell his story. NNU’s president, Joel Pearsall, and board chairman, Randy Craker, declined to discuss specifics of Oord’s leaving, saying it is a personnel matter.

David Alexander, NNU’s president through much of the Oord controversy, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

1. On the sharp edge of Christianity

Thomas Jay Oord lives in that sphere of Christianity where there are no easy answers to the deepest questions.

It wasn’t always that way.

Oord, 50, grew up in Othello,Wash., about 90 miles northwest of Walla Walla. His father was a basic Christian who tried to help people. His mother came from a more emotional Pentecostal background. But the family attended the Church of the Nazarene because they liked the people there, Oord said.

He enrolled at NNU in the mid 1980s, majoring in social work and psychology. “But I found in those professions I couldn’t talk about God like I wanted to” said Oord, who described himself as a fervent evangelical at the time.

He graduated in 1988 with a pre-seminary degree. He briefly flirted with atheism in his senior year. “I am not certain there is a God,” he said. “I have faith there is a God. It seems plausible.”

His first job in 1988 was as a youth pastor in Walla Walla. But he wanted to do more to help people in their 20s who were making big decisions about life and career. Becoming a college professor seemed the best way to do that.

By 1999, he had a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion and theology from Claremont Graduate University in Southern California and was teaching at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Mass.

In 2002 , he accepted a job at his alma mater, NNU.

2. At NNU, Oord gets a reputation

NNU President Richard Hagood was pleased with Oord, the new religion professor. “(He) was very popular with students,” Hagood said. “He tried to live the ideals he thinks and writes and talks about. ... He used a teaching style that allows free inquiry of ideas.”

Oord was relatively unknown outside of the college in those days. That changed as he began writing and blogging, reaching out to theologians. He gained recognition through membership in the American Academy of Religion, a respected association of 9,000 religious scholars and graduate students. His ideas moved beyond the boundaries of his classrooms.

Hagood began hearing some complaints and sought ways to ease the critics’ concerns.

3. Oord questions the all-knowing God

Oord’s writings didn’t sit well with a lot of Nazarenes. Among the most troubling: God, out of respect and love for his creation and humanity’s free will, does not control people’s lives.

His ideas counter a vision of God as all alls: all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-controlling.

“A lot of people live their lives on that,” Hagood said. “It comes to a head in theology, when you talk about evil. Some people tend to say God caused it. He created it or he allowed it. Tom’s idea that (God) has limited his power to have a truly dynamic relationship with humankind sets people off.”

Such ideas aren’t entirely beyond the scope of Nazarene theology and are certainly not rare in many theological circles. It’s called open theology, a sense that everything in our existence has not already been figured out and that God may not know the future.

But it’s one thing in academia. It’s received a different way in local churches and households, especially in conservative Idaho.

“When some of these ideas get encountered by folks who don’t do theology as their life’s work and start to (conflict) with ideas they have always had, they sound off,” said Denny Clark, a retired religion and philosophy professor from the College of Idaho in Caldwell.

Oord’s success put him at odds with some believers.

“Because of my writing, because of my blogging, my speaking, I have made lots and lots of contacts with important thinkers in theology,” Oord said. “So to put it this way, I can have these beliefs and write these things — as long as nobody really knows about it.

“But once I become what people think of when they think of NNU, or they think of the Church of the Nazarene, then all of a sudden people who are conservative are not happy about that.”

As complaints about Oord, many of them from pastors, came to Hagood, he hit on an idea. He asked Oord to meet with people in the community, to listen to them and to explain his ideas so they “could hear and feel his spirit,” Hagood said.

“It was very effective,” Oord said. What he described as his calm approach to theological questions left the impression that he was a “good guy” and people could “trust him,” Oord said.

But in 2008, Hagood retired. He was replaced by Alexander.

4. Oord’s faith faces a test

For eight years, the Rev. Stephen Borger was the superintendent for the Church of the Nazarene in the Intermountain District, making him the top administrator and overseer for churches in parts of Idaho, Oregon, Nevada and Utah. He didn’t hear lots of complaints about Oord.

But he worried about young students, 19 and 20 years old, being subjected to “issues that are pressing the edges and (that) was always a concern of mine.” All religion or ministry majors attended Oord’s classes, Borger said.

“I know students who went through NNU classes that raised questions,” Borger said. “I heard others respond to both his speaking and his writing.”

In 2010, Alexander raised concerns about what Oord was teaching in a letter to the professor, which Oord provided to the Statesman. He said Oord was a “polemic” with “penchant to shock” and was focusing on nonessential things. Oord said he was pulled from teaching his introduction to theology classes.

By 2013, Alexander told Oord, the university had a 3-inch-thick folder of “concerns, criticisms and questions” about his theology, according to a letter that Oord provided to the Statesman. This account draws primarily on documents and emails Oord made available to the Statesman.

There were those with positive experiences, too. Oord was popular for a reason.

“A lot of people struggle with Tom because his views are so different from what they are used to,” said Thomas Tilford, 24, who graduated this year and expects to become a Nazarene minister. “I really appreciate it because Tom was always super open and honest about what he thought.”

Tony Jones is a minister and theologian who teaches at the United Theology Seminary of the Twin Cities in New Brighton, Minn., about 11 miles north of Minneapolis. He’s read Oord’s works and heard him speak.

“He is not a screamer,” said Jones “He is not an ideologue, not a flame-thrower. (He says,) ‘You know what? Let’s consider the options here.’”

5. A church inquiry: 66 questions

In 2013, Alexander told Oord he was setting in motion an administrative inquiry into Oord’s theological perspectives.

Such inquiries are rare in the Nazarene church, say those familiar with the denomination.

Oord was provided with a list of 66 questions to answer. In January 2014, he went to Kansas City to meet and discuss his responses with church officials.

Alexander and Borger went along. “It was serious questions about some very serious concerns,” Borger said.

Oord said he provided a 90-page written response and spent six hours in conversation with Jesse C. Middendorf, a former top administrator in the Nazarene Church, and H. Ray Dunning, a former theology professor at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tenn.

He answered questions about such beliefs as the Holy Trinity, the virgin birth, whether God knows the future.

6. The verdict: “A graceful ... exit”

In a letter to Alexander that Oord shared, Middendorf and Dunning say much of what Oord believes is “well within” the traditions on which Nazarene beliefs are based. But “there are positions he holds that raise serious questions of compatibility with the doctrines of scripture and interpretation as understood by our church.”

They suggested the university work with Oord to change those beliefs. “If that is not possible, we would hope that the university could find a way to provide a graceful and meaningful exit for him to exercise his gifts and graces in places more compatible with the positions and approaches to examining the faith and expressing his grasp of truth as he understands it.”

The letter stops short of accusing Oord of breaching the faith, Oord says: “They do not make any definite claim than I am unorthodox or heretical.”

Dunning told the Statesman he has some issues with Oord’s beliefs, but his theology is “not really out the bound of classical Christian orthodoxy.” Middendorf did not return a phone call or email from the Statesman.

Four months later, on April 10, 2014, Oord said said he met with Alexander and Borger. Alexander asked him to resign and offered him a severance package, said Oord.

“I didn’t want to leave NNU,” Oord said. “So I came back with a counter-offer that amounted to about $1 million. ... I did that because I didn’t want ... to be pushed out.”

The offer was rejected, and Oord regrets today how he handled it. “I wish I would have been brave enough not to ask for any money.”

Borger confirms he was present at an April meeting with Alexander and Oord. Because of his role as an NNU trustee and district superintendent at the time, he said, it’s not appropriate to discuss the meeting.

7. Email disrupts a holiday

Oord was vacationing in Hawaii on March 30, 2015, when an email popped up on his cell phone that required his immediate attention.

Alexander sent the email the day before the deadline to notify faculty about changes in contracts. The e-mail directed Oord to a letter telling the tenured professor he was being laid off after the 2015 school year.

The official reason didn’t touch on Oord’s tussle with administrators over theology.

In memos and press releases, Alexander said that the school had to tweak its $40 million budget to make sure that its money was spent strategically. The school had seen a 22 percent decline in graduate theology and graduate counseling enrollment and the school couldn’t continue to support those as it had, administrators said. The jobs of Oord, another professor and four classified staff were being eliminated. (The other professor took a job elsewhere on campus, and the four staff positions were eliminated through attrition, school officials say.)

Social media and faculty skeptics weren’t buying it. Across the country, Nazarenes, professors, theologians, alumni and others fired off angry tweets berating NNU for kicking out one of its most talented religion professors.

“Most of us would say we just don’t buy that,” said Steve Shaw, a political science professor at NNU for 36 years.

Kevin Tempe, an NNU philosophy instructor who left after 2016, doesn’t agree with some of Oord’s theology. But he wasn’t persuaded by the school’s explanation, either. “Many of us find that incredulous,” he said.

Mark Maddix, then dean of the School of Theology and Christian Ministeries, proposed a plan to keep Oord until Tempe left in 2016 and then put Oord in Tempe’s position.. The proposal wasn’t considered, Maddix and Tempe said.

8. Faculty upheaval, a no-confidence vote

The faculty, which hadn’t been consulted or informed about the layoffs before the announcement, was in turmoil.

In April 2015, Alexander sought to calm the growing backlash. He apologized for notifying Oord by email and denied that Oord’s planned layoff had anything to do with his writing or views: “No individual in this process was targeted for academic or theological reasons,” Alexander said in a statement.

On April 15, the faculty held a no-confidence vote on Alexander’s leadership — a stunning 77 percent saying it had lost confidence in the president.

The vote went beyond Oord’s issues, say NNU faculty members, highlighting a need for “shared governance” of the university in which faculty are asked for advice on issues facing the university and a clearer definition of academic freedom.

Trustees moved quickly to put the layoffs, including Oord’s, on hold. They appointed a committee that included trustees and faculty, alumni and administration to review the plan.

9. Alexander leaves before Oord

In the midst of growing concerns about calming the campus, Alexander resigned in May 2015. Trustees later said his resignation was tied to an improper relationship he had with an NNU student more than 25 years earlier, long before he was president.

When the committee completed its work assessing the layoffs, trustees said Alexander’s plan had followed policy. But it cut a new agreement with Oord, giving him three years to leave and the undisclosed amount of money, Oord said.

Oord remains employed at the university, but has no office. He teaches online classes from his home, on a reduced salary.

Today, 17 months later, social media posts about NNU have died down. The national stories in religion and higher education publications have subsided. NNU now has Pearsall, a well-respected president who even Oord praises, working to strengthen relations between administrators and faculty.

10. Pain for all involved

Oord and his wife still feel the pain of the ordeal. He and others say he’s unlikely to ever be hired again by a Nazarene college, because any president who took him on could also face Oord’s critics.

“I have been ousted here for all intents and purposes,” says Oord, who may try to get on at a Methodist school.

The pain also extends to the campus and Idaho Nazarenes, says Borger.

“I feel badly that it happened as it happened and the way it was portrayed,” said Borger, the former Nazarene district superintendent. “I feel badly for Tom and his family. I feel badly for NNU. I feel badly for the Church of the Nazarene.”

Bill Roberts: 208-377-6408, @IDS_BillRoberts

Oord on God and evil

God cannot prevent genuine evil. After all, God lovingly gives creatures what they need to exist and act freely. Because love comes before God’s power in the divine nature, God cannot prevent the evils done when creatures use their God-given power wrongly. God cannot prevent evil, because God’s love is always uncontrolling.

From “The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Rational Account of Providence,” 2015, by Thomas Jay Oord

Who are the Nazarenes?

The Church of the Nazarene is a conservative Christian denomination created in Texas in 1908 but grew out of a movement that began in 1895 in Los Angeles.

Why was it founded? The church came out of Methodism. Followers didn’t think Methodists were doing enough to help the poor and marginalized, said Brent Peterson, dean of NNU’s school of theology and Christian ministries. Nazarenes also believe in “entire sanctification,” which holds that as “one’s sins are forgiven, God can continue to heal a person so that you can find more and more freedom and victory from sin,” Peterson said.

How large is the denomination? Globally, 2.4 million. In the U.S., 635,000; in Idaho, nearly 12,000, according to the church’s headquarters in Kansas City.

Where does the name “Church of the Nazarene” come from? The name is derived from Nazareth, the place where Jesus lived. Nazareth was a backwater town of little importance, said Randy Craker, NNU’s Board of Trustees chairman. The church aims to emulate Jesus, who came from an insignificant little town to help people who were broken, Craker said.

What are the church’s core values? The church has a longstanding support for education. One of the main reasons NNU was started a century ago was to further education in the denomination, Craker said.

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