[Note: This post is a slightly modified version of an essay I wrote for the August 2015 faculty workshop at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where I serve as Provost and professor. Written just after Obergefell was legislated from the SCOTUS bench, I try to chart a course of Christian fidelity in light of the social, cultural, and political opposition evangelical institutions will face. I begin with some comments on “cultural opposition” from 2 Tim 3:10-17 and then go on to discuss four ways evangelical institutions may experience opposition, and nine types of challenges they will probably face. I conclude that we will be able to flourish even in times of crisis because Jesus is Lord of the seminary. The blog format does not include the citations that were included in the original essay.]
As evangelical seminaries in the United States journey further into the twenty-first century, they will almost assuredly continue to face social, cultural, and political opposition because of their doctrinal and moral commitments. Additionally, they will encounter other sorts of challenges, such as those brought about by technological developments and economic realities. In the face of opposition and challenges, seminary communities might find themselves tempted either to withdraw from the broader culture or to assimilate themselves to it. Faithful seminaries, however, will avoid such temptations and, instead, will allow the Lord Christ his say as Lord of the cosmos, Lord of the church, and Lord of our seminaries.
As Lord of the cosmos, he possesses all authority in heaven and on earth (Mt 28:18); nothing escapes his purview. World events remain under his kingship. As Lord of the church, he sends his people into the world just as the Father sent him (Jn 20:21)—to be and do for the world what he was and did for Israel. We are to confront the world with the God who is, to speak authentically to them God’s words of judgment and mercy. “God wants the church,” writes N. T. Wright, “to lift up its eyes and see the field ripe for harvest, and to go out, armed with the authority of scripture; not just to get its own life right within a Christian ghetto, but to use the authority of scripture to declare to the world authoritatively that Jesus is Lord.”
Jesus is Lord of the cosmos and, we confess, Lord of the seminary. It is incumbent upon us to assist in the formation of ministry leaders who can lead God’s people on such a mission. Our assistance, therefore, can involve neither withdrawal nor assimilation, but faithful engagement with our cultural context—including an unstable and ever-changing educational milieu—as a way of being faithful to the Lord and of modeling for our students what we are asking them to do in their future ministry contexts.
How do we chart a course of faithful engagement in light of a social and cultural context increasingly hostile to the Christian faith? How do we do so with the additional challenges posed by twenty-first century technological developments and economic realities? If Christ is Lord of the seminary, and if, as we confess, his Lordship extends to every area of seminary life, then faithful engagement must take its cues from the Lord’s word. We must ask what it means to affirm, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105) when the path makes its way through uncharted twenty-first century territories. We must allow the word of the Lord to provide for us the starting point, the trajectory, and the parameters for our journey, even and especially when that journey entails opposition.
2 Timothy 3:10-17
The apostle Paul often found himself walking dimly lit pathways in the midst of cultural hostility and unstable environments. In fact, his entire life and ministry could be viewed as an exercise in following the Lord on such paths. In a letter to Timothy, his son in the ministry, Paul reflects on his ministry, and his reflection is worth extended consideration as we navigate the cultural waters of the twenty-first century and its attendant educational environment.
By the time Paul writes his second letter to Timothy, he has been imprisoned, flogged (five times), beaten with rods (three times), stoned, and shipwrecked; he has spent sleepless nights, known hunger and thirst and cold (2 Cor 11:23-27). He “bears the marks of crucifixion” on his body, meaning that his body had been ravaged in a manner similarly to our Lord’s. He finds himself in a Roman prison, probably in a hole, and probably without bed, toilet, or heat. He finds himself sitting alone in the cold, and later in the letter asks Timothy to bring his coat (4:13). This is the situation in which the Lord’s apostle finds himself as he writes his final letter. His is a dimly lit path. He knows his ministry is coming to an end. He is writing to one of the primary men who will sustain the work to which he has given his whole life.
As we read Paul’s words to Timothy, we need to reflect upon the fact that those words to Timothy reveal how Christian ministry has survived for two thousand years, and, if the Lord tarries, how it will survive for another two thousand. Paul’s central proposition to Timothy is, “If you are to weather the opposition and challenges that you certainly will encounter as a minister of the gospel, you must build your life and ministry on the sturdy foundation that is the word of God.” He makes this argument by means of three observations, each of which is prescient as we seek to build our seminary on that same sturdy foundation, even in the face of our own particular challenges.
1. Context of Christian Ministry is One Which Includes Opposition
Paul begins the passage by affirming Timothy for following Paul’s pattern of life:
But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (3:10-12 NKJV).
He lists nine things Timothy imitated, all governed by the possessive pronoun, and together encompassing Paul’s beliefs, ministry, and lifestyle. First, he affirms Timothy for following his vision for ministry which involves a combination of belief (doctrine and purpose) and action (manner of life). Paul’s ministry vision was centered on the gospel (Phil 1:17-18), underpinned by sound doctrine, and issuing forth in a consistent manner of life. Second, he affirms Timothy for imitating his Christian character, including faithfulness, patience, love, and perseverance. Third, he affirms Timothy for standing by Paul even in the midst of intense opposition, as Paul had gone from being the persecutor to being the persecuted, a change of situation which involved imprisonment, floggings, beatings, stoning, shipwrecks, hunger and thirst, and sleepless nights.
Paul affirms to Timothy that godliness draws persecution, implying that Timothy’s life would also be marked by persecution. Paul’s comments bring to mind Hebrews 11:35b-38, in which the writer extols the virtues of faithful people of God who were tortured, mocked, scourged, chained, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, wandered in deserts and caves, and found themselves destitute, afflicted, and tormented. Paul is reminding Timothy that the Christian life ordinarily involves opposition, and Paul’s words serve as a reminder to us today.
We are no exception. Although the opposition we face may not be nearly as comprehensive or violent as that of Paul’s context, we will nonetheless face opposition and, like Paul, we must be prepared to say, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18); and similarly, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).
Evangelical Christians, churches, and institutions of higher education should prepare to do ministry in a world that, at every turn, resists what we say. Like Paul, we can embrace our context, and its attendant opposition, as the context the Lord has chosen for us. We can conform ourselves to Christ via his word and, in so doing, bear witness to the Lord of the cosmos in the midst of a world intent on defying him. When we recognize this, it enables us to face opposition with grace and joy rather than with anger or fear.
2. The Opposition to Our Ministry Will Be From Within and Without
Paul continues in this passage by writing, “But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived” (3:13). This verse is a turning point in the passage, capping off his claim that the godly will be persecuted, and paving the way for the prescription he will provide in the next verses. In this verse, Paul refers to “evil men” and “impostors.” As Kistemaker notes, “evil men” (cf. 1 Cor 5:13; 2 Thess 3:2) come from outside the circle of faith. They are men whose attitudes, words, and actions are wicked and whose master is the Evil One (2 Thess 3:3). By way of contrast, “impostors” (γόητες, used only here in the New Testament) come from inside the Christian community, but are nonetheless wicked.
Just as Paul warns Timothy that the opposition to his ministry would come from within and without the Christian community, so his epistle instructs us to be prepared for the same dual opposition. Although we might typically think of evil men in a fairly circumscribed manner, we should expand our notion of evil, realizing that it is found in every sector of society, including universities, businesses, media, and the three branches of the federal government. Similarly, we might typically think of impostors as people who are involved in cults, but we realize that impostors can be found even in the inner circles of our Christian churches, schools, and universities. Judas was a classic impostor. If we will be faithfully engaged in higher education in our twenty-first century American context, we must be prepared to face opposition posed by evil men and impostors.
3. The Foundation for Our Ministry, Therefore, Must Be the Unshakeable Word of God
Finally, in this passage, Paul instructs Timothy to weather the opposition by founding his ministry on, and framing his ministry by, the Lord’s word. He writes:
But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (3:14-17)
Timothy must chart a course diametrically opposed to evil men and impostors, and this course is mapped out in the Holy Scriptures. All Scripture (graphe) is God-breathed (theopneustos). Paul knows that Timothy, like himself, would face immense pressure to sacrifice his biblical convictions and he wants Timothy to be fortified by a faithful and steady diet of the Lord’s word so that he would be strong enough to face that pressure.
God’s inscripturated word is profitable for doctrine (it teaches us truth), for reproof (it exposes our sin), for correction (it provides a corrective for the sin it has exposed), and for instruction in righteousness (it continues to build us up into mature faith, a faith that issues forth in right belief, right desire, and right practice). If we allow the word of God its role in norming our lives, we will be “complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (v. 17). Instead of being unequipped and incomplete in the face of opposition, we will be equipped and complete.
Like Paul and Timothy, we will face pressure to sacrifice our convictions in the face of cultural opposition. One thinks of cultural opposition to Christian teaching about original sin, wrath and condemnation, gender complementarianism, and marriage as a union of one man and one woman. If we build our lives, our churches, our seminary communities on anything other than the Lord and his word, we will crumble when confronted with opposition. But if we are faithful to the Lord by prayerfully attending to his word, we will be conformed to Christ instead of to the world, and we will be able to weather the opposition victoriously.
The Lord of the Word
The inscripturated word is not a testimony unto itself, but unto Christ. He is Lord of the canon, the axis of the testaments, and the primary actor both in history and in the biblical narrative. It is incumbent on us to reflect for a moment on how Paul’s teaching in this passage relates to the Lord Christ himself.
1. We must remember that Christ himself is the incarnate word. When we read the written word—Christian Scripture—it bears witness to Christ himself, who stands at its center. It is his word, in that he is both its source and its end. What Scripture affirms, Christ affirms. If we want to follow Christ, we are invited to follow him to the Scriptures where we are assured to hear him speak, and which bear infallible testimony to his person and work.
2. We must not forget that Christ himself experienced opposition and stayed true to the normative word of God the Father. In fact, Christ suffered and was persecuted so that our sufferings and persecutions would be limited to this temporal life. His suffering was of such a magnitude that he can empathize with our own sufferings, no matter how severe they seem or how insurmountable the obstacles they pose.
3. We should remember not only that Christ himself will return to judge evil men and imposters, but that we ourselves were once evil men and impostors. We were enemies of Christ until he called us to himself, saved us from our sins, and made us one with him. At Calvary, he took upon himself our name (“evil one” and “impostor”) and in exchange gave us his name (“righteous one”). For this reason, we can face evil men and impostors in a way characterized by grace and joy rather than fear and anger.
Potential Opposition to Evangelical Seminary Education
It is difficult to predict in a precise or comprehensive manner the exact forms of opposition evangelical seminaries will face in upcoming decades. In light of recent court rulings and cultural trends, however, it seems safe to say that we will experience a diminishment of the religious liberties we have heretofore enjoyed. Chief Justice Roberts, in his dissenting opinion, warned that religious believers should take no comfort in majority opinion’s bland statement supporting religious liberty. In light of Obergefell and similar court decisions, one often hears that evangelical Christianity is on the “wrong side of history” for its stance concerning sexuality and same-sex marriage. Some of these voices make a close analogy between those who were on the “wrong side” of the civil rights struggles in the twentieth century (racists) and those who are on the “wrong side” of the same-sex marriage debate today (evangelicals). If in fact we find ourselves opposed by the courts and the majority population of our country, we should consider our path forward in light of the following potential developments:
1. Loss of Tax-Exempt Status: Local churches and religious education institutions will be at the center of the question of whether an organization can retain tax-exempt status if they do not recognize the “right” to same-sex marriage created by Justice Kennedy and the SCOTUS majority. Consider that, mere days after the SCOTUS ruling, The New York Times’ Mark Oppenheimer, writing at Time.com, called for the removal of tax-exemption for conservative churches. He writes:
The Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage makes it clearer than ever that the government shouldn’t be subsidizing religion and non-profits. Rather than try to rescue tax-exempt status for organizations that dissent from settled public policy on matters of race or sexuality, we need to take a more radical step. It’s time to abolish, or greatly diminish, their tax-exempt statuses…. So yes, the logic of gay-marriage rights could lead to a reexamination of conservative churches’ tax exemptions (although, as long as the IRS is afraid of challenging Scientology’s exemption, everyone else is probably safe). But when that day comes, it will be long overdue.
Or, consider that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled this summer that sexual orientation discrimination is already illegal.
2. Loss of Accreditation: Religious schools, colleges, and seminaries will be at the center of the question about whether an organization should be accredited if they do not recognize the “right” to same-sex marriage. Although our regional accreditor (SACS-COC) is not federally-governed, it is increasingly finding itself at the receiving end of injunctions from the federal government and, as such, could in the future find itself penalizing or otherwise punishing religious schools that refuse to condone same-sex relationships or recognize same-sex marriage. Consider, for example, that Gordon College was scrutinized by its regional accreditor because of its stance on sexual orientation and gender identity. Even though the situation was resolved positively, we should be aware of the red flag that it raises.
3. Loss of Revenue Sources: Religious schools, colleges, and seminaries might find themselves cut off from certain revenue streams, including foundations, private donors, and federal grants. Although most SBC donors hold the same convictions as we, they might find themselves and their businesses at risk for “donor stigma” if they give to an evangelical school. Already, large corporations such as Coca-Cola, ESPN, Walmart, Apple, and Mozilla have taken strong stands in favor of the normalization of homosexuality and the legalization of same-sex marriage. Consider, for example, that Mozilla forced the resignation of its CEO Brendan Eich, after an online dating service urged a boycott of the company’s web browser because of a donation Eich made to opponents of gay marriage.
4. Increase in Cultural Pressure: Because of our doctrinal and moral convictions, our evangelical schools, colleges, and seminaries might find themselves under pressure from the towns and communities in which they are located, from surrounding businesses who hire their students, from lawyers or journalists who scrutinize their student and faculty conduct codes, and from other quarters. Essentially, “cultural pressure” is a catch-all category that recognizes that opposition could come from many quarters and sometimes unexpected ones.
Projected Challenges to Evangelical Seminary Education
An increasing number of commentators have noted that the twenty-first century poses unique challenges for Western institutions of higher education for a number of reasons. As Christian educators, we must face these challenges in a distinctively Christian manner, employing Scripture as a lens through which we view the world and as a light for our twentieth-century path. While in the last section, we focused on potential opposition fostered by the recent SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage, the present section focuses on nine general challenges that Southeastern Seminary may face in upcoming years. It should be noted that each of these challenges is to be viewed as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.
1. Doctrinal Fidelity: As evangelical Christians, we will find ourselves increasingly in the minority in our country. We will experience pressure to renege on doctrinal commitments, especially ones that seem intolerant (e.g. original sin, wrath and condemnation). Perhaps more acute, as we noted earlier, will be the pressure to lay aside our convictions on marriage and sexuality, convictions that, as the critics put it, are on the “wrong side of history.” The majority narrative in our country considers same-sex marriage a Civil Rights issue; it places evangelical Christians on the wrong side of history concerning same-sex marriage, similar to the way slave-owners were on the wrong side of history concerning race. For the first time in the history of the United States, orthodox evangelical Christians will be viewed as morally inferior and even morally reprehensible. Even as we find ourselves facing social and political pressure, we must maintain doctrinal fidelity.
2. Financial Viability: In a time when the impact of the Cooperative Program is declining and the costs of higher education are rising, we will need to increase our endowment and find ways to offer the most cost-efficient seminary education possible.
3. Adoption of Technology: As technological advances proliferate, we must make a critical assessment of such advances, adapting ourselves to a new milieu and adopting those technologies that are helpful. As Darrell K. Rigby has noted concerning the business world, consumers “now weave their digital and physical worlds so tightly together that they can’t fathom why companies haven’t done the same.” Rigby’s comments apply to potential students also, students who have gone through primary and secondary education environments which are digitally-intensive and who expect their higher educational environment to be the same. The challenge is two-fold. On the one hand, we must guard against the facile and uncritical adoption of technological developments. On the other hand, we must be ready to embrace technology that will benefit our residential and distance learning students.
4. Social Media Presence: For institutions of higher education, the use of social media offers both promise and peril. On the one hand, educational institutions and their faculty/staff must have a strong social media presence if they wish to remain competitive. One recent study showed that faculty members who used personal Twitter accounts scored higher than those who did not on measures of competence, trustworthiness and caring. On the other hand, improper use of social media can damage an institution or faculty/staff member in a very significant and public manner. The challenge is for us to use social media in an appropriate and effective manner.
5. Accreditation: As evangelical belief and practice becomes stigmatized, we will face increasing public scrutiny and not only for the reason mentioned in the last section. Recently The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Peter Conn, “The Great Accreditation Farce,” in which Conn argued that accreditors undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education when they accredit religious colleges. “Skeptical and unfettered inquiry,” writes Conn, “is the hallmark of American teaching and research. However, such inquiry cannot flourish—in many cases, cannot even survive—inside institutions that erect religious tests for truth. The contradiction is obvious.” He singles out evangelicals and especially Wheaton College, when he writes, “Providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold.” Conn is in the minority, and hopefully voices like his will never gain sufficient influence to affect the accreditation of evangelical institutions. However, we must be prepared for such scrutiny, prepared both to make the case for continued accreditation and to adjust accordingly if we were to lose accreditation.
6. Church and Denominational Relationships: For a variety of reasons, the Southern Baptist seminaries are becoming more affinity-based than geographically-based. In other words, potential students consider seminaries based upon what they have to offer rather than merely where they are located. This can be a healthy development, because it provides added incentive for the seminaries to be maximally engaged with Southern Baptist churches and pastors, learning from them their needs and concerns, and being prepared to adapt to changes in our constituency. The challenge for SEBTS and its faculty is not only to have a clearly defined vision and mission, but the ability to articulate it and apply it in a manner compelling for our constituency. We must know who we are, design our programs to meet our goals, remain focused on our identity and institutional mission, and be willing to say no or to sit something out if it does not fit our mission.
7. Teaching and Learning: We cannot rest on our laurels. We cannot assume that our lecture notes will teach the current generation as well as they taught the last, or benefit one type of student as well as they will another. We cannot be content to remain at the same level of pedagogical competence as we possessed earlier in our careers. We must continually assess our teaching competence. In terms of perennial issues in seminary teaching and learning, we must (a) faithfully bridge the academic and ecclesial worlds, teaching theology as academically-minded servants of Jesus and of his church; (b) embody the attributes of successful classroom instructors, attributes such as personality, presence, preparation, and passion; (c) make ourselves available to students and attempt to forge a personal connection with them, whether they are residential, modified residential, or distance learning students; (d) determine to craft effective instructional practices for modified residential and distance learning students, just as we have done for residential students; and (e) take into account changes in the makeup of our student body, whether those changes have to do with ecclesial background, Bible knowledge, cultural identity, ethnicity, or gender. All teaching is contextual, and the best teachers are as contextually aware as possible.
8. The Shape of Our Degrees and Degree Structures.: It is incumbent upon us always to evaluate the shape of our degree programs. It is of especial interest to evaluate our M.Div. degree, not only because it is the seminary’s primary degree, but also because there is some question of whether the M.Div. will be the “gold standard” degree in the future. More and more students are opting to take an M.A. instead of an M.Div. There are a variety of reasons for this, but it seems the primary reason is that today’s students cannot complete the M.Div. in three years, and often must devote 4-6 years to finish the degree. At SEBTS, we have a strong preference for students to graduate with a M.Div., and so we must evaluate the M.Div. to make it as competitive as possible, not only in relation to other seminaries, but in relation to other degree tracks such as the M.A.
9. Library Resources: For a variety of reasons, the seminary’s library can no longer be viewed as a hard-copy information closet, and the seminary community cannot view the library staff as the custodians of the closet. Instead, we must view the library as the nerve center of research and academic collaboration, and view the library staff as information specialists. Libraries will provide resources both in hard-copy and electronic formats, and for all types of students, whether residential, modified residential, or distance.
Flourishing in a Time of Crisis with Jesus as Lord of our Seminary
As opposition and challenges arise, SEBTS is determined to be a viable institution in every way—spiritually, doctrinally, academically, and financially. We will hold firmly to our doctrinal commitments, maintain financial viability and pedagogical excellence even in challenging circumstances, and commit to being a spiritually vibrant community who represents the Lord Christ with grace and joy rather than fear or anger.
When the Lord commanded his disciples to make disciples, he promised, “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). This promise is really two-in-one. One aspect of the promise is eschatological in the most pronounced sense: he will be with us “even to the end of the age”; when the dust settles at the end of time, the Lord of the seminary will still be standing. But the other aspect of that promise is that he will be with us “always”; even in this time between the times, as we seek to provide seminary education in an uncertain cultural context, he is with us.
The potential obstacles and projected challenges presented in this essay are real, and therefore they must be reckoned with. But at the same time they are providential opportunities that must be seen in the light of our Lord’s promise to be with us always and of Paul’s instruction to build our lives on the sure foundation that is the word of God. In light of the Lord’s presence and inscripturated word, we are equipped even—and perhaps especially—in the face of opposition and challenge to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by equipping students to serve the Church and fulfill the Great Commission. As a faculty community, therefore, let us resolve to take the Lord of the seminary up on his word, allowing him to guide us and cause us to flourish us as we navigate the waters of higher education during a time of uncertainty.