The newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention has a credibility problem.

Johnny Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga., identifies himself with the title “Dr.” and lists two accredited educational institutions on his personal Web site from which he did not receive a doctorate. Yet he is often identified publicly as having degrees ”degrees that come from two diploma mills.

On his personal Web site, It’s A New Day Ministries, the “internet home of the preaching ministry of Dr. Johnny Hunt,” his educational credentials are Gardner-Webb College and the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. No reference is made to the terminal or honorary degree which affords him the prestigious title of “Dr. Johnny Hunt.”

When Hunt is named in conference programs, he is listed as having degrees from schools other than those on his Web site.

For example, the February 2007 evangelism conference program of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention said, “Hunt is a graduate of Gardner-Webb College, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Immanuel Baptist Theological Seminary.”

The October 2007 Southwide Annual Conference program said Hunt “holds Honorary Doctorate degrees from Immanuel Baptist Theological Seminary, Covington Theological Seminary, and Tennessee Temple University.”

The February 2008 annual pastors’ conference of the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville program said Hunt “has received a Doctorate of Divinity from Immanual [sic] Baptist Theological Seminary and a Doctorate of Sacred Laws and Letters from Covington Theological Seminary.”

When Georgia Baptist Convention editor Gerald Harris wrote about Hunt’s nomination, he included a paragraph about Hunt’s education: “Immanuel Baptist Theological Seminary in Sharpsburg, south of Atlanta, awarded him an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree and Covington Theological Seminary in Rossville honored him with a Doctor of Sacred Laws and Letters degree.”

Clearly, Hunt’s colleagues know about his degrees from two dubious, Georgia-based entities that lack credible academic standing and legitimate accreditation.

Located outside of Atlanta, Immanuel Baptist Theological Seminary offers an “external degree program” that allows students “to earn college and/ or seminary credit at home.”

Three of Immanuel’s faculty members, including its president and executive vice president, are family members. Many faculty members appear to have residences in Ghana, India, Indonesia, Korea and Nigeria. An Internet search of a number of faculty members turned up only links to Immanuel.

“If the student cannot come to college or seminary, IT can come to the student through Regional Campus classes, the External Degree Program, or through the Immanuel-Judson Bible Institute,” explains the seminary’s Web site.

Covington Theological Seminary offers night classes, “allowing the students an opportunity to have daytime jobs while earning a Bible education.”

Three of Covington’s staff members ”its president, executive secretary and director of administrative services ”are family members. The school’s president holds “the B.R.E., Th.B, M.Div., D.Min, D.R.E., and Th.D. degrees from Covington Theological Seminary.”

The school’s vice president for academic affairs has a Ph.D. from the Southern Baptist School for Biblical Studies, a degree that the school does not appear to offer.

Addressing the issue of accreditation, Covington states, “We have not nor will we seek governmental acceptance, accreditation, or funding for the effectiveness of our programs.”

Covington’s accreditation comes from the Accrediting Commission International, the “world’s largest non-government school accrediting association,” which has only a handful of Web pages with little information.

Covington identifies itself as affiliated with the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), an organization with its own questionable standards of accreditation.

Neither Covington nor Immanuel is accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, as are all six Southern Baptist Convention seminaries.

Covington and Immanuel fit into a category known as “diploma mills,” entities that demand little, if any, real academic training, enable students to bypass rigorous education, have no legitimate accreditation and award impressive sounding degrees.

One of Hunt’s own “sons in the ministry” was forced to resign from the prominent First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, Fla., in part because of his diploma mill degrees.

Highly recommended to the church by Hunt, Steven Flockhart was forced out “over a controversy involving fabricated education credentials,” reported Baptist Press, which noted that the Palm Beach Post had discovered that Flockhart had obtained correspondence degrees from Covington Theological Seminary, “a Georgia school not accredited by any recognized accrediting agency.”

“Covington, based in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., claims its accreditation through an agency that is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and is an outgrowth of a company that was once charged with fraud,” reported Baptist Press in October 2006. “As of mid-October, Covington’s website said the school is accredited by Accrediting Commission International (ACI) of Beebe, Ark. ACI once was known as the International Accrediting Commission based in Missouri but changed its name and moved to Arkansas after it was charged with fraud and barred from doing business in Missouri.”

Two dubious institutions gave the new SBC president a title that he proudly bears. By identifying himself with the “Dr.” title, Hunt legitimizes these diploma mills and encourages by example other ministers to take educational shortcuts ”shortcuts which deceive churches about the real quality of the academic training of their clergy.

That places the question mark of integrity over the SBC.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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