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A conversation with Bruce McLarty

NEW PRESIDENT of Harding University says Christian education is vital to help students bececome ‘fully equipped’ for life.

Bruce McLarty, 56, was inaugurated as the fifth president of Harding University on Sept. 20.
Prior to joining the Harding faculty, McLarty served as a minister for Churches of Christ in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee. For 14 years, he was pulpit minister for the College Church of Christ in Harding’s hometown of Searcy, Ark.
McLarty first attended Harding Academy of Memphis in Tennessee and entered then- Harding College as a freshman in 1975 and received a bachelor’s degree in Bible in 1978. In 1982, he received the Master of Theology degree from Harding School of Theology in Memphis. In 2010, he earned the Doctor of Ministry degree from Ashland Theological Seminary in Ohio.

He joined Harding’s administrative team in 2005, serving as both vice president for spiritual life and dean of the College of Bible and Ministry. He is editor of the Abundant Living magazine, published by Harding, and two books. In 1999, he received the Outstanding Alumnus Award from the College of Bible and Ministry at Harding. He is married to the former Ann Hutson, a Harding alumna and a nurse at the university’s Health Services Center. They have two grown daughters.

What interested you in becoming president of Harding?
I have loved Harding since my student days here. This is where I met my wife, where I was trained for ministry and where my own children went to college. I guess that when you have a great love for a school, you want it to do well and to keep its core values and beliefs.
Eight years ago, I was given the opportunity to come across the street from the College Church of Christ and become part of the Harding University administration. I wanted to have a hand in shaping the future direction of the school that has done so much to shape my own life. Becoming president turned out to be the next step toward that goal.

What makes Christian education relevant today?
This is a question for which the answer is so obvious that it is almost difficult to express.
As a people who believe that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” and that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life,” we know that God must be at the center of any discussion of reality. How could we possibly study the nature of the universe without an awareness of the God who created everything and breathed into us the breath of life?
Secularists look at Christian education and think that we have no academic freedom. I hear our professors say all the time that they are thankful to have the freedom to explore the universe without leaving their faith at the door. Christian universities are about the only places remaining in our culture where this sort of academic freedom exists. What could possibly be more relevant than that?

Most colleges founded on religious principles do not remain true to those for even a century. What is your plan for Harding?  
This is a great question and one that is always on my mind. I don’t think most faith-founded schools make a conscious decision one day to turn away from or against their faith. Rather, they sell their souls a penny at a time, often unaware that they are even doing so, until one day they have no spiritual capital left.
My prayer is for the wisdom to see when compromise is the wise thing to do and when it is the unfaithful thing to do. That is a life-and-death distinction for a Christian university.
For the past three years, I have presented material called “Embracing the Mission” to new faculty members during orientation week. This involves introducing them to our history, our commitment to “teaching Christianly” and our belief that a Christian university can be a community that is guided by Kingdom values. As president, I have an even larger platform for promoting those ideas at Harding, and I am excited about the opportunity to do so.

What relationship to Churches of Christ will Harding have under your leadership?
Quite simply, I don’t believe Harding has a good reason to exist apart from our relationship to the Churches of Christ.
There are some people who deeply love Harding but who want us to loosen or end our present-tense relationship with the church. I love them, and I believe I understand what they are saying; I just happen to disagree with their viewpoint.
At Harding, we have made our commitment to the church increasingly clear in recent years because we can no longer assume that everyone understands why we exist or where we stand. And I am convinced that when we are clear about who we are and what we believe, we become a more welcoming community to others, not less.
What do today’s college students need?
What they most need and what they best respond to are two different but closely connected things.
What they need is to learn how to love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. This is the foundation of Christian education. At Harding University, we seek to do this in a number of ways — chapel, Bible classes, Christian teachers, etc. This hasn’t changed with time, and I don’t believe it ever will.
What students best respond to is genuineness. I constantly hear students use the expression “being real.” I think that their greatest difficulty with the church’s message is not that it doesn’t make sense; their greatest difficulty with the church’s message may be that they haven’t always seen genuineness in the lives of those who espoused it.
As they hammer out their own philosophy of life, it is vitally important that they learn what is involved in loving God from those in whom they can see truth.
What will you do to address these unique needs?  
One of my favorite verses in the New Testament is 1 Thessalonians 4:1. Paul wrote, “Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more.”
My personal belief is that the answers to most new problems are found in rediscovering the faith resources that have always surrounded us. We don’t need to wait for the next book or the latest study to tell us how to minister to today’s students. Rather, we need to live as an authentic community of faith-filled scholars who believe that the word of God is still the key to helping students be “fully equipped” for life.
I don’t yet have all the details worked out for how this can be accomplished, but I am confident about where the starting point is.

Filed under: Dialogue Features

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