Moody Bible Institute Challenges Charges of Racism from Relevant Magazine

As seminary faces questions on theology and finances, racial issues have also come forward. Leading voices including seminarian Jemar Tisby and whistleblower Julie Roys respond.

By Josh Shepherd Published on February 6, 2018

Starting Monday, Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois hosts a week-long conference of evangelical leaders known as Founder’s Week. It marks the birth of school namesake, evangelist D.L. Moody.

The ministry’s largest annual event attracts thousands from across the nation and viewers online. Those slated to speak include Ed Stetzer, J.D. Greear, Anne Graham Lotz, Matt Chandler and James Meeks. Yet troubling questions loom over this year’s celebration.

In January, three top leaders at the renowned seminary stepped down from their positions. Allegations over theology and finances remain unresolved for many. With top positions vacated, interim Moody leaders have communicated through press releases. The pertinent facts have been difficult to ascertain and view in context.

Days ago, a Christian publication stepped into this vacuum with a splashy headline. “How White Privilege Is Destroying One of America’s Oldest Bible Colleges,” it read. With quotes from faculty, students and graduates, Relevant Magazine revealed a pattern of racist actions and attitudes faced by minority students.

The article praised racial justice efforts led by dismissed Moody leaders. Then it asserted reasons for the leadership shake-up. “Students and faculty members told me they believed it was ‘whitelash’,” it stated. “They are afraid that these transitions will lead to a worsening of race relations.”

In an interview with The Stream, Moody spokesman Brian Regnerus spoke openly of their challenges. “We have much to learn and many places to grow in, by God’s grace,” he says. “Reflecting ethnic diversity has been and will continue to be a top priority for us.”

Notably, MBI’s perspective was absent from the Relevant article.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Former Moody radio host Julie Roys has been at the center of recent upheaval. When Moody Bible Institute (MBI) announced in November that staff layoffs would occur, she investigated questions raised by faculty members.

Their claims center on theology and finances. Certain MBI professors allege some colleagues have postmodern views that distort how they teach the Bible. Other charges are related to financial impropriety. Specifically, a loan was granted to now-resigned Moody President Paul Nyquist for off-campus housing.

Roys went public with allegations one day before Moody’s executive committee was scheduled to meet. Within a week, the radio host was fired and her Moody show cancelled. She has since embraced the identity of whistleblower. In a half-dozen posts, her blog documents concerns about Moody’s current course.

But she disagrees that race issues played into recent abrupt departures. “This idea that it was a ‘whitelash’ is absolutely ridiculous,” says Roys. “The racial issues talked about in that article were not what led to the three top officers being removed. It’s irresponsible to say that if you don’t have any evidence of it.”

Nevertheless, incidents in the Relevant article greatly concern Moody leaders. It recounts racist jokes, a professor who dismissed any modern-day racism, and a white student swinging a nightstick to threaten a black classmate. Nationally, Pew Research reports 71 percent of blacks say they have experienced discrimination.

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“We do not call into question anyone’s experience or the real pain that they have felt,” says a Moody spokesperson. “Their stories grieve us. Our heart’s desire it to truly listen, pursue biblical, lasting reconciliation and whatever else is needed. We want to reflect what Jesus prayed for in John 17 — that we would be one.”

Even while disagreeing with it, Roys believes the Relevant article has some merit. She was gripped by social media comments on it. “One said, A lot of kids come to the school from sheltered environments and say some ignorant things,” she recalls.

“I do not doubt that that happens,” says Roys. “Those students get educated over time. I think there’s a lot of growth that can probably happen at Moody.” Last year, her radio show hosted an hour-long program on white privilege to foster dialogue on these issues.

Pursuing Biblical Views of Race and Justice

Seminarian Jemar Tisby has a long history with Moody. He has attended MBI conferences for years. His studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi included Moody materials. And the man who led him to belief in Christ was a graduate of MBI.

“I [do not know] the degree that race was at play in the leaders stepping down,” says Tisby. “I am, however, well-versed in the racial dynamics that characterize many white evangelical institutions. Race can never be discounted.”

Since 2011, Tisby has led The Witness: A Black Christian Collective. The grassroots network seeks to engage issues of religion, race and justice in light of the Bible. Tisby and his team often walk the line of polarized politics and culture. Some posts challenge the platform of Black Lives Matter; others raise concerns about the NFL anthem drama.

“People of color have been talking about how Christians can demonstrate more racial sensitivity for decades,” says Tisby. “What wearies me is sincere but superficial gestures at diversity. Colleges and seminaries seem more concerned about donors and alumni than the pain their black students endure due to racism.”

“Christians should lean into the hard facts of racism and pray for a sense of godly grief. That will lead to substantive change.” — Jemar Tisby

In recent years, MBI has sought to lead evangelicals in addressing race issues biblically. Moody Radio premiered a short feature on figures from Black History in 2013. Moody Publishers released United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity by black author Trillia Newbell and other titles on race issues.

“What the Bible teaches undergirds all we do in this area,” says Regnerus. “Every person has immense value to God because we are all created in His image. We will continue to take intentional steps to become more inclusive and welcoming to students and staff of color.”

Tisby believes grappling with racial issues is about preaching the whole gospel. “White Christians need to remember Paul’s words to the Corinthians about godly grief,” he says. “After he told them a hard truth, they changed their behavior and he rejoiced.”

The seminary graduate references 2 Corinthians 7:10. It reads: For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.

“It’s easier to retreat from the truth of racism in the church,” says Tisby. “Instead, Christians should lean into the hard facts of racism and pray for a sense of godly grief. That will lead to substantive change.”

Fostering Diversity — From Dorm Rooms to the Boardroom

Questions persist for Moody — many from a certain article with 8,000 shares and counting. Yet the school has taken steps to acknowledge and correct systemic issues.

Spokesman Brian Regnerus ticks off a dozen Moody initiatives designed to foster inclusion of black, Hispanic and other minority voices. MBI has brought on Christian leaders of color as professors, trustees and staff. “We have a recruiter who focuses solely on the recruitment of diverse students,” he says.

Jemar Tisby cautions that advancing biblical inclusion can end without leaders who champion it. “I don’t think the issue is really a lack of ideas about how to foster diversity,” he says. “The problem is a lack of will. Institutions must be willing to lose supporters, money and reputation in the pursuit of racial justice. Decision-makers often balk when they realize the cost.”

For her part, Julie Roys continues to seek answers on the pressing issues at MBI regarding theology and finances. “We are in a cultural moment where the truth-tellers are being listened to and heard for a change,” says Roys. She references the #MeToo movement which has exposed the misdeeds of powerful figures.

“Our culture and society is embracing that,” she concludes. “Unfortunately, some of the power structures aren’t embracing it.”

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