The Case for Theological Education in the Post-United Methodist Church Rebirth

A well-trained clergy has always been at the heart of the Wesleyan vision of pastoral leadership. Wesley was deeply committed to theological training. He produced a steady array of serious training materials and insisted that they be mastered before someone could become a certified Methodist preacher. His Notes on the New Testament and his canonical sermons are still in print today. Wesley knew the biblical languages, was conversant with the patristic writers, and all of his writings reflect his commitment to the deep roots of historic faith. Proper theological education was the driving force behind the whole structure of the Methodist movement’s commitment to sanctification of both heart and mind. It involved trained clergy and a network of class meetings, bands, and societies, which were built on this foundation. Indeed, serious theological reflection stands as one of the hallmarks of Wesley’s capacity to unleash a new Christian movement.

Tragically, the contemporary church is awash with spiritual superficiality, biblical illiteracy, and theological confusion. It is vital that any new denomination that emerges out of the likely breakup of the United Methodist Church make this problem central to their vision. A few simple questions will clarify this point. Are pastors entering seminary with less biblical and theological literacy than they had thirty years ago? The answer is clearly yes. Are the theological and biblical challenges those same pastors are facing greater than they were thirty years ago? Again, the answer is yes. Therefore, it would be wise to not reduce our commitment to proper theological training. Indeed, precisely because we are entering a post-Christendom, post-Christian phase in our nation, there has never been a more urgent time to reclaim biblical and theological thinking and living.

Whenever a new denomination is formed it is not unusual to react against that which has caused so much dysfunction. Liberal theological education has wreaked havoc on our pastors. James Heidinger II’s landmark book The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodist (Seedbed, 2017) demonstrates profoundly how modern-day United Methodism has been ruined by faulty theological education. The answer, however, is not to diminish our historic commitment to theological education, but to strengthen it and put it on proper grounds. We have inherited poor theological education. The answer is not less theological education, but better theological education.

There is no better case study for this than the determination of so many United Methodists to normalize same-sex behavior and gender reassignment in the life of the church. I am sometimes asked if I am weary of our church’s seemingly endless debates over this issue for forty-seven years. I sometimes respond, “No, what amazes me is that as a denomination we have never actually had a proper discussion about it.” We have argued endlessly about it on cultural, and sometimes, pastoral grounds, but we have never had a proper biblical and theological discussion about it as a church. The reason for this is that we had already abandoned our commitment to biblical and theological moorings decades earlier, so we were left without the necessary grounds and language to properly assess the impact of these new proposals on our Christian witness. The debate could have entailed a serious discussion of the precise meaning of a range of Greek words, but, alas, no such discussion ever arose. If a new movement is launched without solid theological grounding, we will be easily vanquished by the next several waves of the latest cultural ideas which, supposedly, place us on the wrong side of history. We have been defeated once by our poor theological rootedness. Why would we plant the seeds for our future demise before we even get a new denomination started?

I would go so far as to say that while I am struck by the loss of Wesleyan distinctives in our movement, I am even more struck by the loss of our Christian identity. In other words, we have embraced only a domesticated caricature of Christianity, and central to any new denomination must be a vigorous reclaiming of historic Christian grounds. The watered-down pabulum of mainline Protestantism will not provide the nourishment we need to face what the rising generation needs to proclaim and defend the historic faith. I have argued for years that unless our movement reclaims our Christian identity, there will be no hope in our reclaiming our rich Wesleyan heritage. We must be attentive to the foundations upon which any new denomination will be built in the post-UMC witness of the “people called Methodist.”

Today, there is a door opening for a distinctive Wesleyan voice to bring leadership to theological education in North America in ways that were unimaginable even ten years ago. There is a something stirring in the church that could unite Christians around a deeper consensus, which is more ancient, more patristic, more conciliar, yet rooted in historic Christian confessions. In short, what is before us in August of 2021 is not merely an ecclesial moment, it is a profoundly theological moment. This is our opportunity to recapture our own history, as well as our place as leaders in the theological vision which could unfold in the twenty-first century and beyond. If we move into a kind of easy, generic, experienced-based evangelicalism, we will not have the ballast necessary to bring effective, global leadership to the church.

Let’s be honest, many of the contemporary forms of user friendly, minimalistic Christianity have not demonstrably proven that the faith is being effectively transferred to the next generation. However, if we recapture a deeper commitment to embody a truly transformative Christian worldview, which can only happen with a concomitant commitment to theological education, then will be poised to dramatically shape the future contours of Christian identity. This also means that theological education itself needs renovation to more adequately address the unique challenges of pastoral formation in a post-Christian society. But, we should not relinquish our historic vision for a well-trained clergy. The rebirth of class meetings, small band accountability, the emergence of thousands of new church plants, and a more articulate, faithful church can only be accomplished if our future clergy are prepared and trained at the highest level. To relinquish our commitment to theological education out of fear of students incurring debt is to name a problem and miss the obvious solution. We must actually stand with and financially support those who are called into full-time ministry. The answer to the problem is scholarships, not reducing our commitment to theological education. If we do, we will lose our most capable leaders who will, quite rightly, be attracted to other, more robust movements.

We must not forget the observation George Whitefield made as he looked back on his ministry and compared it to the ministry of John Wesley. Whitefield said, “The souls that were awakened under [Wesley’s] ministry he joined in societies, and thus preserved the fruit of his labor. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand.” There are no Whitefieldian societies now. But there are tens of millions of Wesleyan believers around the world. Let us not create a new rope of sand. I believe that the vast majority of those who will join a new denomination understand the importance of theological education. So, as we think and prepare for the future, let us join together and give birth to a well-organized, disciplined, theologically trained church with deep roots in our historic faith and rich theological heritage.

Christian Identity and Ethical Boundaries: The Case of Redeemer University

Are you a Christian just because you say you are? This question was actually at the heart of both the sixteenth-century Reformation as well as the later eighteenth-century Wesleyan revivals. We sometimes have the mistaken notion that the revivals and awakenings of these amazing chapters in church history were primarily directed to all of the unbelievers in the society who explicitly did not believe in, or follow, Jesus Christ. While this is undoubtedly true for certain groups of people, the far larger groups that were awakened in both the sixteenth-century Reformation as well as the eighteenth-century Great Awakening already belonged to the church. If asked, they would have considered themselves Christians. It was the genius of the Reformation to join experience, doctrine, and ethics into one seamless message to help people who happened to already belong to the church (and who claimed to be Christians) to actually hear the gospel and become true Christians. The broad road of nominalism is one of the specters that looms over any culture where Christianity is the culturally approved faith.

Now that this is evaporating in the West, we are forced to remember the true nature of Christian identity. The point is this: Being a Christian was specifically tied to real beliefs, historic confessions, and shared ethics that related the believer properly to Jesus Christ. As one early church father rightly commented after the post-Constantine influx of Christians into the church: “You cannot be ‘born’ a Christian, you have to ‘become’ a Christian.”

Various ecclesiastical bodies may disagree on exactly where these lines are drawn, but all churches have the right and responsibility to uphold their own boundaries and, if necessary, exercise church discipline. In fact, when the Reformation was pressed to define the church, they stated that the true church would be marked by three things: the gospel was preached, the sacraments administered, and church discipline was exercised, (See, for example, Belgic Confession, article 29.)

This may seem like a discussion from a distant era, but it all rushed back this week when I read about the dispute between a Christian university in Canada and the Canadian legal system. The dispute involves Redeemer University, which is a private, Christian liberal arts college located in Hamilton, Ontario. It is like hundreds of Christian colleges that are located all across the United States. Like most evangelical colleges across our nation they have an ethos, or community life statement, which provides ethical parameters to the community. Like countless private schools, no one can be admitted into the community unless they agree to abide by these community standards. This has long been a normative and accepted practice for all Christian universities, as well as churches, when they determine whether to admit someone into membership or enroll someone as a student.

However, the Canadian Bar Association is bringing a case against the University for discrimination against LGBTQ students. The statement by Susan Ursel, the lawyer who represents the Canadian Bar Association, is very telling. She said, “They’re not discriminating against [students] because they’re Christian, they’re discriminating against them because they’re LGBTQ by this code of conduct.” She went on to say, “You can discriminate on the basis of only wanting Christians, sure, but once you’re inside your Christian community, you don’t get to pick and choose whether you like people who are gay or straight. You take your community the way you find it and you serve it.”

The underlying assumption of the legal statement is that being a Christian is self-defined, i.e. if someone claims to be a Christian, then that person automatically is one, with all the privileges which may come with that identity. Therefore, a Christian university must accommodate that person as a Christian insider. However, the gospel defines the community of those who are called by the name Christian as those who have submitted to his lordship. This is defined historically, through the revelation of the New Testament, the creeds and confessions, the ethical parameters of the faith, and so forth. The New Testament regularly exercised discipline against members who violated the ethical standards of the church (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 5:1–5).

As a community, we must be prepared to counter this post-modern approach, which somehow thinks that even the word “Christian” can be autonomously defined. We must recognize the inherent problem if this line of reasoning is accepted. If, for example, a person employed by Wendy’s were to decide that he or she can autonomously decide what it means to be a “Wendy’s employee” and they, for example, refused to wear a uniform, or thought that it was acceptable to make racial slurs against a customer, we would rightly expect that Wendy’s has the right to “uphold their borders” and apply their own standards to the workplace. They retain the right to define the terms of employment and, from a free speech perspective, no one can be compelled to become a Wendy’s employee. They are free to not accept the terms of employment. This very scenario happened in a McDonalds in 2019. A McDonald’s employee got into an argument with a customer and the employee used a racial slur (which was captured on video). After the incident, McDonald’s issued the following statement: “The disturbance with the customer prompted our management team to call the police right away; and we did an immediate investigation on this matter. This behavior goes against the values and standards that I expect from employees in my restaurants. This employee displayed improper and unacceptable conduct and is no longer with the company.” This has happened hundreds of times across this nation, even including employees who make offensive posts on their private Facebook or Twitter accounts from their own homes.

Let’s take a religious example to drive the point home. If a young man gains entrance into an Orthodox Jewish training program within the Yemenite tradition of Judaism, they are required to maintain a “payot,” which is to allow the lock of hair growing on the sides of their heads to remain uncut. For this religious community, this is an ethical matter that serves as a sign of their obedience to the Torah as well as one of the distinguishing marks which sets them apart as a community from non-Jews. Suppose a young man from this tradition wanted to cut his payot off, yet still insisted that he be granted entrance into a Yemenite training program on the grounds that he was being unfairly discriminated against because he still considered himself a Yemenite Jew. But, is it not the right of the Yemenite community to determine what constitutes the boundaries of that particular community? To illustrate the absurdity of the argument, let’s restate Susan Ursel’s point, but use my example: “They’re not discriminating against [students] because they’re Jewish, they’re discriminating against them because the Yemenite code of conduct forbids them from cutting the sides of their hair.” She went on to say, “You can discriminate on the basis of only wanting Jews, sure, but once you’re inside your Jewish community, you don’t get to pick and choose whether you like people who wear a payot or not. You take your community the way you find it and you serve it.”

It should raise serious concerns if a company like McDonald’s is allowed to apply ethical standards in defining someone who is called an “employee of McDonald’s” and yet the church or a Christian university is prohibited from defining who can be a member of their respective communities. Redeemer University has every right to uphold their community life statement as one of the defining parameters of what it means to be a member of the Redeemer University community. In short, Christian identity is both doctrinal and moral. If the Canadian government prevails over Redeemer University, then it will, in effect, be forcing Christians to accept a reductionistic faith which puts our entire identity into the small thimble of privatized beliefs that we are required to keep hidden in our hearts with no public, ethical witness.