Spreading Scriptural Holiness throughout the World, Part 2: A Wesleyan Renaissance in a Post-Christendom World

Friday, September 11th, 2015

By the grace of God, we are making remarkable, providential progress toward our 2023 Strategic Plan.  We are re-mapping the strategic witness of Asbury Theological Seminary, becoming simultaneously more global (less sectarian) yet also more aware of our own Wesleyan identity within the larger context of global Christianity.

This Fall, we will re-present the 2023 Strategic Plan in a new format, consolidating 55 goals into 25 goals and organizing them explicitly under the ten core values of our Strategic plan.  It embraces Global Partnerships, our Church Planting Initiative, the Re-missionizing of existing churches, our hybrid model of education which will assist the post-traditional student.  Our vision embraces solid biblical studies (IBS), theological and historical grounding and the best praxis of ministry training.

It also includes starting a PhD in theology.  This is being joyfully lived out on our Wilmore and Orlando campuses, as well as our Memphis extension site and over 500 students in our ExL online program.  Our vision includes community formation and our residential renaissance.  It includes our Seedbed publishing and New Room networking.  Our vision embraces the Hispanic initiative on our Florida-Dunnam campus as well as our emphasis on urban ministry and Lay mobilization.  It includes a vibrant strategic Enrollment Management Plan and strengthening our economic model by expanding our circle of support through our comprehensive campaign and re-engineering the very economic engine which runs the seminary.  We have just joyfully received our full re-accreditation for ten years from both SACS/COC and the ATS, great signs of our peer reviewed testimony to our vibrancy and our future in equipping men and women for ministry.

Post-Christendom Is Here

Brothers and sisters, we are now dwelling in a post-Christendom world.  However, there is big difference between a post-Christian west and a post-western Christianity, because Christianity is being rediscovered even in the West within the context of its original missional setting.  Old Christendom was built upon alliances which were determined by pivotal political and historical developments.  This is what eventually produced not only the major tri-partite structure of the church as either Catholic, Protestant or Eastern Orthodox, but also a myriad of deeper alliances such as Roman Catholic religious orders or Protestant denominations.  This has had a profound influence on how we have traditionally conceptualized the global church and how we conceptualize theological training.

Andrew Walls has insightfully pointed out that there is an enormous difference between writing church history and writing Christian history.  Walls says, “Church history writing requires ecclesiological choice; it assumes, consciously or unconsciously, a specific identification of the church, or at least a particular manifestation of it.”  When students sign up for a course in church history, what is actually being studied is a well-defined selection of themes within the history of Christianity which are relevant to a particular group of Christians who share a particular geographic and confessional heritage.

However, as global Christianity becomes increasingly made up of peoples from Asia, Africa and Latin America, and these newly emerging indigenous expressions become normative, then the whole structure of how we understand and talk about Christian history and our place in it must also undergo a dramatic change.  In the West, for example, our cultural and ecclesiastical history flows primarily from the Roman Empire, so what happened in western Europe dominates our understanding of church history.  However, after having spent considerable time with Christians from various parts of Asia, I can testify that the Roman Empire does not loom nearly as large from the perspective of peoples shaped by the Persian, Ashokan or Han empires.  This background, in turn, dramatically influences how Christian history is understood and told and, in turn, how theology is formulated as well as the way we conceptualize the best rhythms and practices of ministerial training. Thus, the narratives which shape theological education need to be re-conceptualized so that they reflect a more global and missional perspective on the church, particularly as African and Asian Christianity become increasingly normative and western Christianity becomes more consciously aware of the larger global movement.

One of the most important transformations which this shift offers, is a new basis for ecumenism within the global church that transcends the traditional barriers.  We are finally grasping the implications of a post-denominational world and living into the new reality of strategic networking and global alliances which unite faith and mission in fresh and creative ways.  We are discovering new ways—which may actually be a recovery of more ancient ways—of engaging in a more globally informed discourse with committed Christians from around the world.  We are discovering a deeper ecumenism for the 21st century which transcends the categories we have known.

Let me clarify what I mean by “deeper ecumenism” because the term “ecumenical” has been used in a wide variety of ways (for a full exposition of my understanding of ecumenism and how it compares and contrasts with various usages of the word, see my book, Theology in the Context of World Christianity, pages 184-188).  I am not using the term ecumenical in reference to any attempt to find some grand, outward, structural unity for the church.  There are over 38,000 distinct denominations in the world and the deeper ecumenism which I am referring to does not necessarily mean than this number will dramatically decrease.  I am not using the term to refer to any vision of the church which models an uncritical accommodation to modernity by sacrificing kerygmatic essentials of the historic Christian proclamation.  The kind of ecumenism I am referring to is the deeper, older ecumenism that finds its roots in historic Christian confessions.  A case for this has been effectively set forth in Thomas Oden’s excellent work, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy (See also, J. I. Packer and Thomas Oden, One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus).

We can no longer afford the kind of entrenched sectarianism which has often characterized our movements.  This does not mean that we must relinquish our distinctive Wesleyan convictions. On the contrary, being in conversation with the global church will not only serve to enrich our own particular theological perspectives, but, more importantly, it will lead us to a deeper understanding of the depositum fidei, that ancient apostolic faith which forms our common confession.  As it turns out, the post-Christendom world of the 21st century is starting to look a lot like the pre-Christendom world of the ancient faith.  It is amazing how a little dose of persecution begins to draw Christians together.  Kim Davis’ imprisonment right here in Kentucky is a prelude to what is coming.  The early church had a quite long list of professions which Christians couldn’t do.  It may not be long before Christians cannot be county clerks, school teachers, bakers or photographers, etc.

However, it will mean that we must distinguish more explicitly and publicly between the kerygmatic truths which unite all true Christians and the adiaphora where there are legitimate differences.  The old world of Christendom may have, sadly, permitted—and even encouraged—the kind of divisions which have marred the church’s witness and her obedient response to Jesus’ high priestly prayer that we “may be one” (John 17:11).  The advent of global Christianity with multiple centers of vitality means that we have an opportunity to see ourselves first and foremost as Christians proclaiming the apostolic faith and only secondarily as Reformed Christians, Pentecostal Christians, Dispensational Christians, Arminian, or Independent Christians.  We also need to invest more time in constructive engagement with our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters.  We cannot, nor should we, simply deny the defining struggles which produced the Protestant movement or the later Wesleyan revivals.  Nevertheless, we must learn to listen better to the perspectives and struggles of other Christians and to endeavor to see ourselves as members of a global Christian movement.

The global church is a tapestry of diversity.  However, despite our many differences, there are certain great truths—most notably Christ himself, who is the Truth, and the inspired Word of God, without error in all that it affirms—which unite all Christians in every age around those affirmations which have been held semper ubique ab omnibus (“always, everywhere, by everyone”).  This is more than the unity expressed by a creed, although it should not be less than that.  Rather, it refers to a deeper spiritual unity which acknowledges our catholicity because we are all members of the body of Christ and share a common union with Jesus Christ and a burden to bear witness to Him in authentic ways throughout the whole world.  This has important implications for 21st century theological education, including the meaning of collaboration and partnership, how we understand ecclesiology in a global context, and how we conceptualize Christian identity within new networks, including, among others, our own growing New Room network.