Bethlehem Seminary president resigns over stances on infant baptism, church-state separation

Joe Rigney, a pastor and president of Bethlehem College and Seminary of Minneapolis, Minnesota, offers remarks in a 2021 speech.
Joe Rigney, a pastor and president of Bethlehem College and Seminary of Minneapolis, Minnesota, offers remarks in a 2021 speech. | YouTube/Bethlehem College and Seminary

Bethlehem College and Seminary, a school where theologian John Piper serves as chancellor, has accepted the resignation of its president over his views on infant baptism and the separation of church and state.

The Minneapolis, Minnesota-based school announced Monday that Joseph Rigney resigned as president, having served the college in varying roles for 16 years.

According to the announcement, Rigney and Bethlehem are parting ways because of a "vision divergence between him and other leaders of the school." The statement claims Rigney accepts positions that "are out of step with several distinctives which Baptists have historically viewed as biblical."

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"His position on baptism and how the children of believers fit into the covenantal scheme of Scripture has developed to the point where infant baptism is an open question," noted the announcement.

Bethlehem leadership felt that Rigney's "position on the relationship between Christianity and civil government is not at home with the historic Baptist emphasis on the separation of church and state."

"The point here is not that Bethlehem College and Seminary has a creedal position on church and state. Nor is it that 'separation' between church and state means the absence of influence," explained the school.  

"The point is that President Rigney's more recent emphasis on a hoped for eventual Christianization of all of society, including the civil government, has put him significantly out of step with other leaders of the school who would warn against the use of civil authority to establish Christianity as an official religion."

Bethlehem's Board of Trustees named Brian J. Tabb, academic dean and Biblical Studies professor, interim president. Rigney will officially step down at the end of May.

"My family and I are currently praying and considering a number of options for our future, all of which would enable us to continue to spread a passion for God's supremacy in all things," Rigney said in a statement. 

In addition to serving as president of Bethlehem, Rigney also serves as a pastor and has written the occasional column for Desiring God, a popular theology website overseen by Piper.

In 2019, Rigney drew pushback after penning a column in which he argued that empathy, generally defined as understanding another person's feelings and pain, was an "enticing sin."

Formatted as a letter from a demon named Scratchpot to another demon, Rigney contends that empathy is a "counterfeit" of "the virtue of compassion."

"Our alternative, empathy, shifts the focus from the sufferer's good to the sufferer's feelings, making them the measure of whether a person is truly 'loved,'" wrote Rigney.

"We teach the humans that unless they subordinate their feelings entirely to the misery, pain, sorrow, and even sin and unbelief of the afflicted, they are not loving them."

Grove City College Professor Warren Throckmorton was among the critics of Rigney, writing in a 2021 blog post that empathy is not "acceptance of things you don't agree with."

"Empathy doesn't require you to give up any position you might otherwise have. For instance, parents can empathize with their wayward children ('when I was your age…') and still administer correction and direction," wrote Throckmorton.

"Empathy is simply understanding the inner world of other people. It is all about being able to relate to them and understand what they are going through. It quite important in human functioning and when absent is associated with cruelty and antisocial behavior."

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