|Theological diploma mills are a significant problem of moral integrity. If ministers will take educational shortcuts and misrepresent their ministerial training, then they will probably cut corners and engage in deception on other church fronts. If prominent ministers claim honorary degrees from diploma mills, they validate these entities, making them credible options for younger ministers.
That may be what happened to Steven Flockhart, who was forced to resign in 2006 from the prestigious First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, Fla., due partly to his misrepresentation of educational credentials.
A "son in the ministry" of Johnny Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga., Flockhart was licensed to preach and then ordained by Hunt. Flockhart claimed a bachelor's degree in 2003, a master's degree in 2004 and a doctoral degree in 2005 from Covington Theological Seminary, a seminary that granted an honorary doctorate to Hunt.
When EthicsDaily.com drew attention last week to the dubious doctorates held by the new Southern Baptist Convention president, "Dr. Johnny Hunt," a number of bloggers addressed the issue with clarity and passion, including Mainstream Baptist, The Big Daddy Weave, For God's Sake Shut Up, Baptists Today Blog, Dr. Jonas' Blog and On Further Up the Road: Musings on the Journey. The Washington Post posted a guest column.
SBC officials and reform-minded Southern Baptist bloggers have been mute about addressing the moral trickery of some of their clergy and colleagues, save the editor of the Biblical Recorder, who jumped to support Hunt with a contorted defense.
After shooting at the messengers, he used the false moral argument that since every institution—legitimate and bogus—hands out honorary doctorates, there's no problem. Then, he claimed that everybody knows about bogus honorary doctorates. Of course, the problem is that not everybody knows. But even if everybody knew and every institution did it, then it still would not make the practice morally right.
Even though the North Carolina editor does not understand the moral problem of diploma mills, the SBC seminary president in his state does. Without question other seminary presidents and SBC-affiliated organizations are committed to academic integrity.
Given the fragility of the declining and divided SBC, no official wants to set off a conflict over bogus academic degrees, especially with the new SBC president, who has two former SBC presidents as members of his church: Bailey Smith and Jerry Vines. Yet their silence and some practices collude with the diploma mills, validating these entities as acceptable.
Take the practice of the Baptist Courier, the Baptist state paper of South Carolina, which identifies pastors who have degrees from Covington Theological Seminary as if that entity had credible accreditation.
Only last fall, the Courier carried an article about Richard Porter, pastor of Branchville Baptist Church, who was a candidate for the state convention presidency. The former first vice president of the convention in 2006 was identified as "an alumnus" of "Covington Seminary."
The year before the paper identified one of the 2006 presidential candidates, Tom Tucker, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Rock Hill and president of the state pastor's conference in 2005, as a graduate of "Campbell University and Covington Seminary."
The practice of the Courier validates Covington as an acceptable institution with other academically accredited institutions.
Other Baptist state papers have the same practice. The Christian Index editor had no apparent hesitation in authenticating Covington in its announcement article about Johnny Hunt.
Samford University even noted in its alumni magazine that one of its graduates had "earned a doctor of ministry…from Covington Theological Seminary."
Another source for credentialing validation comes from the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists, which claims on its Web site that all its listed evangelists "have undergone a formal application and vetting process." They "have met additional standards of accountability."
Among the evangelists vetted are Dr. Randal Helms, who claims that he earned his "Masters of Ministry Degree and Doctor of Ministry Degree" from Covington. Helms is a member of Hunt's church.
Another evangelist is Jim Wilson, who noted a doctor of Sacred Laws and Letters from Covington on his biographical sketch.
A third evangelist is Junior Hill, who listed an honorary doctorate from Covington. Hill was also a first vice president of the SBC.
Legitimizing entities, like Covington, even occurs in the most unexpected places.
When Congressman John Linder (R-Ga.) welcomed Johnny Hunt "as a guest chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives," he said on May 18, 2005, "Dr. Hunt received a Doctor of Sacred Laws and Letters from Covington Theological Seminary in Rossville, Georgia, and an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Immanuel Baptist Theological Seminary in Sharpsburg, Georgia."
It is doubtful that Linder knew that another branch of the federal government, the U.S. Department of Education, has a Web page warning about and defining diploma mills.
"Diploma mills are schools that are more interested in taking your money than providing you with a quality education. You need to know how to protect yourself as a consumer," according to the U.S. Department of Education Web site.
"Diploma mills require little, if any, academic work in order to earn a degree. Degrees from diploma mills are sometimes based on life experience alone or a level of academic work that is far below what an accredited postsecondary institution would require. Diploma mills can require little or no work but the result is the same, a degree that has no value and is meaningless."
The Department of Education provides a search engine for accredited institutions and has a link to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which also has a search engine for recognized institutions and information about diploma mills.
Neither organization recognizes either Covington or Immanuel.
Southern Baptists have a widespread problem with diploma mills that necessitates an institutional response, especially since the denomination has taken such a rigorous stance about doctrinal integrity. What does it say about a body that insists on right doctrine but turns a blind eye to the right educational practices?
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.