What I Would Say to Matt Olson & Northland

Dear Matt:

My support of the direction of NIU expressed in your open letter may not matter to you and in the minds of some would not be helpful to you since I am no longer considered a fundamentalist or separatist by many, neither do I care to be known as such using their parameters. I find the descriptors unwieldy and they no longer encapsulate what I want to say biblically or how I want to be known. I've known you since our basketball days at BJU (you were by far the better player) and I appreciate your faithfulness over the years, your pursuit of truth, and your willingness to follow Scripture where it leads you. You are in a difficult situation, in the public eye, and with a constituency you have more challenges than most. In my case, as a relatively obscure church planter, I have to keep fewer people happy and as long as the Lord is pleased, my wife is happy with me, and I have a few steadfast friends, by God’s grace I hope to survive the assaults. For you as the leader of an institution there is more at stake. You have been called naive and worse. It’s easy to see that in others especially by those who have never been in leadership positions where critical decisions and paradigm shifts need to be made. I’m convinced, having had conversations with friends in ministry, that many stay fixed in a previously established position because it is safe even if they have doubts about where they are and what they believe.


Tim Jordan used to remind us that we are always changing but never changing (or something like that). There are some things that must not change and some things that must change. I do wish that you were more open about the change taking place. Your friends and critics are right to express their stupefaction that Northland did not believe this would cause a significant problem. Your invitation of Ware and Holland marks a significant shift, one I applaud. I understand the reactions because I've been there, as petty and always right as anyone. And having been there I try to be patient with detractors of which I have a few since I no longer practice ecclesiastical separation as I did in the past. I have changed my position over the years and believe it is in light of a better understanding of God's Word. I am willing to continue to change. I really believe God changed my position but don't want to blame Him for any of my imbalances. I have been wrong about some things in the past, am probably wrong today even if I don’t see it, and will be wrong on some things in the future. That’s life. We live and act by God’s grace and the light we have received. If you and Northland see things more clearly and recognize that past practices went beyond Scripture then to own up to it is a mark of Christian growth.


Personally I would have no problem inviting the men to my pulpit that you had at NIU. I don't have to agree with them in every area or check their itinerary to see if I approve of their associations as long as they are gospel-centered and Christ-honoring, are not violating clear teaching on biblical separation and are not teaching heresy. They are part of the same body, members of the same family, brothers in arms in the same battle for truth, subject to the same failures and imperfections, animated by the same Spirit, fellow laborers in the same harvest, and approved by the same Lord. Shall I refuse fellowship to those whom the Lord accepts? I have repented and do repent of an unbiblical and unloving separation.


With the changes underway at Northland you cannot help but alienate people. In the end the Lord will determine whether you were faithful or whether you erred at this juncture in life. This is a struggle you don’t need to win because it’s not about winning. You need to be serene in following where you sense God is leading you and Northland whatever the future holds for you and/or the ministry where you were called to labor. Some might say change is needed or Northland will decline. Others might say that Northland is in decline and needs change. As I see it, that’s beside the point. Whether Northland declines or flourishes should not be part of the reason for change or no change. If godly change leads to decline and causes other institutions to flourish, so be it. Apart from the Church no institution has the promise of perpetuity.


Anyway I know that you are under fire and want you to be encouraged in the Lord. Please God, obey the Scriptures, love your enemies, enjoy your wife and family, and come what may remain faithful.


Your friend & brother in Christ,

Steve Davis



9 Responses to “What I Would Say to Matt Olson & Northland”

  1. There's something about "the schools" that seems to agitate and energize so many. I wonder if some project too much significance upon them?
    I'm sure glad I went to the University on Cincinnati and understand that the church (not the Bible College)  is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15)

  2. Good point. Schools come and go. The Church remains. Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. But we can and should change as He changes us.

  3. Hi Steve,
    Well, we obviously disagree over the separation question, but that is not what I want to argue about here.
    Jim's observation about schools and their relative importance is why those of us on the separatist side of the question are anxious about Matt's decisions.
    Independent churches (whether Baptist or otherwise) have no standard denominational schools that they can trust. There is no denominational hierarchy or machinery to discipline and correct schools for their errors. The schools we have are all we have to perpetuate our point of view. They are the institutions we depend on for training our young people in the philosophy we embrace. When one of our schools starts to wobble, we raise an alarm. The only court we have is not a church court, but the court of public opinion.
    Hence the anxiety, the chatter, and the criticism.
    Certainly we are as fallible as the next guy. I would guess, Steve, that at this point you would view separatists as extremely fallible. But until God grants more light, I just can't see it that way. So I will continue to do what I can to preserve schools in the fundamentalist philosophy. It is not something I relish, as I have always liked Matt (despite his BJU society, heh, heh) and am deeply grieved at the recent decisions that have been made.
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  4. In response to Don's comment: "The schools we have are all we have to perpetuate our point of view. They are the institutions we depend on for training our young people in the philosophy we embrace. "
    First of all, I count you as a friend, follow your blog, and probably agree with your 95% of the time. Even when I have not agreed with you I appreciate your demeanor and point of view.
    I would like to take your sentence above and replace "school" with "church":
    "The churcheswe have are all we have to perpetuate our point of view. They are the institutions we depend on for training our young people in the philosophy we embrace."
    I have seen hundred of young adults go to the University of Pennsylvania, Penn State, University of Michigan, Michigan State, Universty of Minnesota, etc. And these young adults have been faithful members of churches. They are as strong as students that I have observed from the Bible Colleges.
    I believe in the local church!

  5. I am surprised you agree with Don 95% 🙂 but that’s okay. I don’t think we need even 95% for fellowship and partnership in gospel ministry. That’s why I think Northland’s shift is a good thing and they should be forthright about it.

  6. Well, Jim, if we can train preachers at Penn State, etc, then you might be right. I, too, believe in the local church, but when we see young preacher's go for training, a lot of us want to have schools with a fundamentalist philosophy to send them to.
    We  have schools here within commuting distance that we could send them to, but their theology and philosophy is far removed from us. Steve might like them, though…
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  7. It might be a bit naïve to think that college students from fundamental churches are greatly concerned about preserving fundamentalist philosophy. Most college students in fundamental churches already have a much broader Christian experience than their pastors do, as evidenced in their choice of music, the extent of their Christian fellowship, and their attraction to preachers from a diversity of backgrounds.
    Do not Christian colleges exist to nurture students in their pursuit of following Jesus Christ as Lord and to help them to think critically about all of life, even their belief system?  Or do they simply exist to perpetuate the philosophies and points of views of supporting churches?
    Is the concern that Rick Holland and Bruce Ware will somehow deter or hinder students from following Jesus Christ as Lord? I doubt that anyone believes that! Or is the concern that they will no longer follow Christ from ‘our point of view’ and from ‘the philosophy we embrace?’ If that is the case, then Jesus has already spoken to that issue in Mark 9:36-42.

  8. Don:

    This was a good shot – "We have schools here within commuting distance that we could send them to, but their theology and philosophy is far removed from us. Steve might like them, though…"  Funny but maybe true. I'd have to know the schools. I've been to BJU, Reformed, Dallas, Calvary Baptist, and Trinity. I liked them all in different ways and benefitted from my studies there. I don’t carry a loyalty card for any of them but appreciate them and have friendships and fellowship. However, as much as I believe in education – college, seminary – they are no substitute for the local church and discipleship (which rarely takes place in educational institutions).




  9. Hi to John, I think you are older than Steve,  and so were through BJU before my time.
    I don't think many college students are much concerned about anything, certainly not about getting an education…
    I wasn't saying that students are concerned, but pastors and churches are concerned that their young people be trained in a philosophy in keeping with the philosophy of the local church. That is why we have denominational schools, after all. Nazarenes tend to want their young preachers to know their theology and philosophy of ministry, as do Presbyterians and Baptists and Methodists and Lutherans, etc. It isn't a strange thing for those who are independent fundamentalists to want schools that will reinforce what is taught at home, not tear it down. (Of course, it is a question whether any of the fundie schools are satisfactory these days. I'm not particularly excited about any of them.)
    Steve, the schools nearest us would be Regent, Trinty Western University, and a few smaller denominational schools (a Canadian Baptist Fellowship, not independent, not fundamental, Calvinistic and amillennial – the heirs of T T Shields without the militancy; also a Pentecostal and a Mennonite school). There are a few schools down in the Seattle area also.
    I would have to say that I don't carry a loyalty card to BJU simply because I am a grad. But for the most part they still impart what I want our young people to learn, so I recommend them. (There are areas of concern, nonetheless.)
    Anyway, my point is that these schools certainly have a right to make their own decisions, but if they make decisions contrary to what their constituency wants, they will suddenly find their constituency voting with their feet.
    It seems to me, simply from a pragmatic viewpoint, a very strange thing for a Fundamentalist school to abandon its constituency toward a more evangelical one. Do they imagine that their enrollment will increase? They have not built a constituency of evangelical supporters (who mostly already have their own schools) so what is there really to gain by making moves like this? You satisfy the radicals in your own group at the expense of offending the conservatives. And that will only leave you the radicals to draw from. Maybe they have a death wish? Not sure, but I would bet Northland goes the way of Pillsbury in a few years.
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

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