The Case for Theological Education in the Post-United Methodist Church RebirthAugust 28th, 2020
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.
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