Tag: Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

The Tale of Two Speeches

One Speech and One Sermon, two different perspectives on the Church in America, One from the President of the United States, One from the President of a prominent Evangelical Seminary, who is correct?

Jonathan Faulkner

I just spent the last half-hour listening to the president’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. Like many, I am tired of the insults and put downs that have become common place within these speeches and so I would not normally have watched it, but since the President tends to talk up his accomplishments and since he was before one of his primary bases, Evangelical Christians, it seemed logical to expect to see much of the same in this speech. Guess what? I was not disappointed. Listening to the speech made it sound like Christianity was alive and well and he even used the word “Thriving” to describe what was happening. A similar word was used by Pew and Lifeway when they did their research on the ever-marginalized Churches in New England, Churches that are no longer sitting at the forefront of social influence and power and are increasingly further from those centers. The President also made mention of how he has done more for Christians than any other political leader in the nation’s history and one could infer “Since Constantine.” Still, between the self-endorsement and the attacks on political enemies one saw what the second speech reiterated over and over again.

The Second speech, which was actually a sermon on Psalm 85 by the new president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary Dr. Scott Sunquist from GCTS Spring Convocation which served as my wife and I’s spiritual nourishment and preaching as we sat at home Sunday Morning waiting out the snow storm that canceled our own service. The sermon opened with one poignant and heart-wrenching line: “The Church in the United States of America is sick, Evangelicalism is sick, brothers and sisters, we are sick.” He then went on to paint the grim picture, combining for us all the statistics on church-decline all the reasons the people in our pews are so anxious, but at the end of that he gave us hope, he showed us the way back to health, his solution? Reach out to God and ask Him for restoration. I know this is likely the first time some of you have heard of this sermon so please go and take a listen before you continue reading.

I said above that the presidents remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast proved, in many ways what Dr. Sunquist said in his sermon, I will get back to that in a second. First, I want to ask the question that I asked in the tagline on this post because these are two very different views of the state of the Church in the United States of America. There is no compatibility here, either the Church is doing amazing and things are great, or we are sick and in need of a biblical restoration. The question we have to ask here is “What is the truth?” Is one of these men passing around false information meant to make himself look better in the eyes of a constituency? Or are they both way off base and the truth is somewhere in the middle? Many of us would like to believe the president, as a Pastor that would take a load off my mind. I would like to say that Christianity is thriving here in the United States of America. I would love to be able to stand before my congregation and say that all their fears are for not, we are in great shape.

However, I cannot ignore what I see with my eyes and hear with my ears. I cannot ignore what the cultural exegetes tell me, those people whose job it is to know exactly what the state of the church in America is like. I cannot help but think about Peter Bienart’s article in the Atlantic in 2017 that talked about “America’s Empty Church Problem” or the pianist at my church who lamented about a town where all the churches are either museums or condo’s or homes now (that was a town in Wisconsin no less). I think of what Barna Group calls: “the rise of the none’s” and what David Kinnamen calls: “the dropout problem” where young Christians who leave the church are not coming back and many are abandoning their faith altogether and the heartbreaking reasons why this is so. I think of the increasingly close entanglement between cultural evangelicalism and Political Power and the promise that all these things I mentioned above are no longer true, even though they are. I think of Dr. Peter Kuzmic who told the church we attended in Hamilton in 2019 that the president of the United States was: “Absolutely hindering missions work all over the world because of Evangelicals association with him in American Politics.” I see and read all of this, I hear the way people in my town talk about the people on the other side of the isle, people who are otherwise perfectly kind men and women who treat bitterly their political rivals. I cannot help but think that Dr. Sunquist is right, that we are in need of restoration. We have violated what Philip Schaff defined as the definition of Religious Freedom in the United States: “It is a Free Church in a Free State, or a self-supporting and self-governing Christianity independent but in friendly relation to the Civil Government.” That the very people who once wrote into their founding confessional documents like the Saybrook Confession that Christian Magistrates could not “proselytize” are now looking to the government to do just that.

Yes, Dr. Sunquist is correct, we are sick, and the president is incorrect, we are not barreling towards a brighter day, we are headed for our own destruction. Yet, I would be a fool to not look at the positive things that are happening in Christianity. The article by Peter Beinart I mentioned above does point out that one affect of our current situation in American Religion is that cultural Christianity is declining and biblical Christianity, which at the time was apolitical, is on the rise. According to a 2018 article in the Washington Post: “Conservative churches” which would better be defined as “Bible Believing” are growing while Liberal churches are dying on the vine. It is also true that 4 Million people between the age of 20-35 classify as what Barna calls “Resilient Disciples” that churches in the places where they are not longer the dominate power structure and where Power Religion is mocked and the church marginalized are laying down their denominational hard lines and embracing a biblical definition and the biblical example of the Church. In short, the Church is reforming, and though this time around there is not a one pivotal figure who has walked up and nailed 95 thesis on the Cathedral doors, there are many spirit led men and women who have found a more ancient voice, the voice of the Holy Scriptures. This new Reformation is taking place around our dinner tables and our fellowship times, at Theology on Tap and in Post-Sermon Q&A sessions. It is active and extremely organic, at times to a fault. Jesus is once again eating with the sinners and the tax collectors and the religious pharisees are once again condemning Him. It is true in Church History and it will prove true again, anytime the church aligns itself with the halls of power it never ends well for the church. Further, anytime we lose our power and influence it forces us back to a time when we had to live out what we believe rather than speak from a place of assumed authority. As Schaff predicted in The Principle of Protestantism, the cultural sects are dying off or reforming and rejoining the main body. Sectarianism has proven untenable.

Now, back to a point I made earlier, I said that the President’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast points to the truth of what Dr. Sunquist said about our sickness. If you listen to the president’s speech, he does exactly what James 3:9-12 tells us not to: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and saltwater flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olive, or a grapevine bear fig? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” In almost the same breath the president of the United States both cursed and attacked his enemies, those who he saw as working against him, and then praised God and even, at points, touted his own accomplishments as being from God. It may also surprise you to find that the general way of speaking, by the president, or tweeting, by the president, tends towards cursing man more so than it does to praising God. This is a sign of how sick we have become; we have propped up and praised a man who is in direct violation of the commands and text of scripture, and not only James 3:9-11. We have embraced a man who regularly participates in “course joking” who has openly admitted to sexual immorality a man who, at the National Prayer Breakfast, openly and brazenly admitted to hating someone who is very possibly his sister in Christ and accusing that sister of making false claims about her own religious practice. His harboring of anger and hatred puts him direct violation of Jesus own commands in Matthew 5:27. If this is not proof of illness, I am not sure what is. We claim the bible is authoritative, we claim that scripture is the means by which we are to live through the Holy Spirit, but then we do not live it out in our own lives and ignore it when it is convenient or expedient.

We are quickly coming to a point of no return, will we pray the prayer of Dr. Sunquist, “Restore us oh God.” Or will we continue to whore after the god of political power and influence? Will we continue to ignore scripture in favor of our preferences and our safety? Or will we repent and remember that it was not Christians in power that brought the Roman Empire to its knees, but a Church under persecution? IF we continue this line of pursuit, we put ourselves in danger of increasing persecution (some places this has already begun). Or we can return to the intention in Schaff’s definition above, two separate and free entities with only a friendly relation unless that government is openly apposed to Christianity. We may not be able, at this point, to back to what Schaff described as: “The relationship of church and state in the United States secures full liberty of religious thought, speech and action within the limits of the public peace and order. It makes persecution impossible. Religion and liberty are inseparable. Religion is voluntary and cannot, and aught not, be enforced.” I fear we are passed the point of a return to this vision and continued attempts to use the government to proselytize we will only face increased persecution.

This is why the president was wrong and Scott Sunquist right, all that is happening that is good in the church right now is actually in spite of what the president is doing or not doing for the church. His own speech and actions, violation of the biblical text which we claim is sacred, and so on and so forth are proofs to Dr. Sunquist point. Further, As David French pointed out our propensity to make excuses for him and to justify his behavior is even more damning and destructive. As we have seen countless times, in the attack on Russell Moore, in attacks on Mark Galli and in too many other cases to admit, we have violated Biblical teaching and done damage to our Gospel witness in a world that already wanted nothing to do with God. We are certain not in the favor of all the people (Acts 2:42-47). Just the opposite, we have taken the offensiveness of the Gospel (you cannot save yourself) and added our own offensiveness to it by not turning to God, but to man, to save us. We should be quick to repent before it leads to our destruction.

Bibliography

Bornman, Adam S. 2011. Church, Sacrament and American Theology: The Social and Political Dimensions of John Williamson Nevin’s Theology of Incarnation. Eugene : WFPF & Stock Publishing .

Fea, John. 2019. Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump . Grand Rapids : Eardhman’s Publishing .

Nevin, John Williamson. 2017. “Antichrist: Or the Spirit of Sect and Schism (1848) .” In The Mercersburg Theology Series Vol Vi: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Tome One: The Ecclesiological Writings of John Williamson Nevin (1844-1850) , by John Williamson Nevin David W. Laymen, 160-245. Eugene : Wfpf & Stock .

Nevin, John Williamson. 2017. “The Church .” In One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, John Nevin’s Writings on Ecclesiology (1844-1849) Tome One: The Mercersburg Theology Study Series Colum Five, by John Williamson Nevin David W. Laymen, 144-159. Eugene : WFPF and Stock .

Nevin, John Williamson. 2017. “Thoughts on the Church .” In The Mercersburg Study Series Vol VII: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Tome Two: John Williamson Nevin’s Ecclesiological Writings (1851-1858, by John Williamson Nevin David W. Laymen, 131-152. Eugene : WfPF and Stock .

Philip Schaff, . 1964. “The Principle of Protestantism .” In The Lancaster Theology Series on the Mercersburg Theology V: VI , by J.W. Nevin, Ed Bard Thompson Philip Schaff, 48-219. Philidelphia : United Church Press.

Schaff, Philip. 1888. Church and State in the United States or The American Idea of Religous Liberty and its practical Effects . New York : Charle Scribner & Sons .

Jonathan D12973040_10154269785339245_3845786340930956602_oavid Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.

Asking the Right Question: The Deficiency in Current Theological Education

 

Jonathan Faulkner

 

I have spent, almost, the last ten years of my life participating in theological education in some matter or another. Most of that time has been as a student, however, some of that has been teaching deep dive Sunday School classes on 1st Timothy and Isaiah or laboring as a pastor or working to boil down high theological ideas for little children. I have learned a lot in the classroom, whether it be studying Systematic Theology or the Biblical Languages or Historical Theology, but I have learned infinitely more by taking the time to boil down the full extent my education into answers for the questions people are asking me. For example, if I am pastoring a church in a small farming community, what does scripture have to say to farmer who is afraid of losing his farm or who is struggling with suicide. Or to a teen who has lost one or both parents to the opiate crisis. How do I minister to the everyday people in my everyday context? If I can answer the question of Authorship in Genesis am I aiding the people in my pews? Likely not.

A brother of mine here at the seminary laments the fact that he is being taught to answer American questions when American questions are not the same questions being asked in his native Uganda. It would be easy to point out that the questions we are being taught to answer here are 20-40 years old and not the ones being asked by the people in the pew.

The Librarian here at GCTS had an interesting observation, that when the seminary was founded it was designed to train pastors to compete with the secular ideologies invading the mainline churches. Now that most of us are headed into conferences or fringe denominations (which as a whole are larger than the mainline denominations) perhaps it is time to rethink the questions we are asking, even update them.

The current deficiency of theological education is this…that we are leaving these walls with no knowledge of the actual state of the church or the state of the people in the pews. That we are being trained to answer questions that are irrelevant to the generation we are going to be ministering too and have no bearing on the faith of those in the pews. As biblical literacy rises and the people in the pews continue to conform themselves to the Gospel in this time of reformation we are currently experiencing it is a detriment to our seminaries not to ask the proper questions, not to engage, not to change. Especially given the negative view of the current state of the church by professors who rarely engage outside their academic circles and most of whom have never served as pastors or even lay leaders, or at least have not done so since receiving academic postings.

To do this, we have to be trained to ask the questions that the people we will be ministering too will be asking. We also have to learn the questions that the generations in our pews will be asking. For Millennials, we are told, that question is “What is real” or “What is Authentic?” For the coming generation they are speculating the question will be “What is beauty?” IF we as a church cannot answer these questions both in word and form then we will continue to lose generation after generation and the church will start to do what many here think it is already doing….shrink. (By the way, Tim Keller says it is not).

I remember sitting in a meeting when our Church began looking for a new pastor. They Elders got together with their care groups and a member of the Search Committee to get input from the congregation on what to look for in a new pastor. At one point an older member of the congregation suggested that young people wanted a church with lots of lights and fog machines and a big worship band like the one his son attended. This horrified the Millennials in the room because we came to the church because the worship was genuine and authentic and a part of the everyday life of the Church. The relationships we had all formed were the same, authentic and lifegiving. At this church, as it is quickly becoming the norm in most churches, the Gospel was lived and Christian Faith was a daily, authentic thing. We were accepted and felt warmly loved and encouraged there and also felt challenged to be real concerning our faith and relationships.

Yet, when I sit in the classroom, what I hear from my professors is most often the opposite of the questions I am receiving from my peers and from church members. The view of my generation is negative, the questions being asked is: “how do we deal with these millennials who are leaving the church.” Coincidently, most of my peers have a very negative view of the church and are not prepared to enter into a much more positive system then what we are taught we are going into. Interesting how secular sociologists have noticed the changes and those training the pastors day in and day out have not.

Do not get me wrong, learning about the authorship of Genesis is important, but only so. Learning Hebrew and Greek are important but we cannot make proficiency therein the bench mark of a theological education. In fact, the tools are so good now we should likely teach pastors how to use the tools instead of training them to have a super in-depth knowledge of the biblical language. That way we can focus on the questions facing us today, rather than spending two and a half hours parsing and only 20 minutes on the practical implications of the text.

As it stands, pastors leaving our major seminaries, especially those which emphasize the languages, are better equipped to do academic scholarship than serve as Pastors. We are better trained to write systematic theologies than we are to write and preach sermons that will aid in the work of the spirit towards the total transformation and putting on of Christ then our congregations. We are trained to be scholars, not vessels.

The church needs scholars, it even needs pastor scholars, but if those pastor scholars have not learned to actually do pastoral ministry but can form a polemic against JDEP (theory of authorship of Genesis) but cannot care for the spiritual needs of the farmer or the small town or the inner-city, then they are ineffective and should be removed from office.

The fact is, right now we have some very pressing pastoral matters on our hands. From the dehumanization of people to the need for biblical righteousness, reconciliation and Justice. We also have to discuss technology and its effect on the family, the Opiate Crisis, the farmer suicide rate and much, much more. That does not include, nor is it limited to the questions that are being asked in global Christianity, as in, an African Student needs to learn to answer the questions being asked in his or her home country whether it be Uganda or Ethiopia. The same is true about the student from Portugal, from China, from South Korea and so on and so forth. This requires a much broader theological education than the one we currently have. We should not need a Institute for the Black Christian Experience because, as part of the general experience, we learn the history of Christianity in Africa and how it was affected by the Slave Trade, Colonialism and is still be affected by the modern missions movement. We should be reading authors and theologians from all corners of the world, learning to ask the questions that the global church is asking so we can help each other answer the individual questions we will be facing. Providing shared experience and resources and wisdom, as well as Exegesis so that we can come to a fuller understanding of this faith and not one that is stunted, as western Christianity is.

For that to happen though we have to learn from people who are actively seeking to be up to date on the questions being asked. That means they have to completely engaged in the non-academic world, engaging not only authors and theologians from different backgrounds, but also actively engaging the people in the pews. Because at the end of the day we are less likely to debate the meaning of a Hebrew Word in the Hithpael than we are to engage a family that is afraid they are going to lose their house or a teen who has been the victim of Sexual Assault. If our theological seminaries are going to be partners with the global church, they have to be engaging with the global church. For this to happen, they need to change drastically and quickly because slow change only prolongs the errors being perpetuated. It requires us to give up the idol we have made of the biblical languages and learn them not as the end all of exegesis, but as a part of the sum of the whole. We need to do serious research into the state of the church and change our attitude towards those who are learning in our classrooms.

If we do not, we lose an important and even essential aid and resource to the Church. That is unacceptable, change cannot be slow and it needs to be a change that consults the students, not treats us as if we are kids incapable of making decisions. We can start by asking the questions that our students are asking and go from there, if we do not, our decline will continue and we will cease to exist.

 

Jonathan D12973040_10154269785339245_3845786340930956602_oavid Faulkner is a Graduate student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary working on Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel in the North Shore of Boston and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church.