*This post was originally published on 22 March 2013.
In Arthur Schlesinger’s award-winning biography of Franklin Roosevelt, he famously labeled the economic and political malaise of the 1920s and ’30s as “the crisis of the old order.” Schlesinger argued that political, cultural and economic norms were changing so rapidly that, coupled with government inaction, they coalesced to form a crisis of the entire American status quo—a crisis that would upend society and necessitate re-conceptualization of American economic and social policy. Current observers of higher education, including theological seminaries, likewise acknowledge a crisis exists in many of the seminaries and divinity schools in North America today. This crisis is so profound it is forcing institutions to re-conceptualize their model of education and their means of delivering it.
Admittedly, crisis is a tired word. We hear often of political, economic, geopolitical, and cultural crises. Yet, when subjected to careful review, theological education in North America must be deemed as in a state of crisis. This current distress evidences itself in at least three areas.
First, most theological institutions in America find themselves, at least to some degree, mired in a crisis of resources. The escalating costs of higher education, nagging questions about the value of advanced degrees, encroaching federal regulations, and persistent economic sluggishness present even the best-funded institutions with daunting operational challenges.
This crisis of resources has forced historic institutions to merge or close, and has left the remaining ones searching for a sustainable business model. These fiscal realities, and more, have been like a spiraling whirlpool, drawing almost every theological institution into its vortex. The persistent generosity of Southern Baptists through the Cooperative Program has proven to mitigate this fiscal challenge; however, even Southern Baptist seminaries are not immune to this struggle.
Sadly, the most urgent and consequential crisis in theological education is not one of funding. It is more fundamental and philosophical; the crisis is one of identity. What is a seminary to be? Stemming from and coupled with this crisis of identity is a crisis of mission. What is a seminary to do?
The answers to these questions of identity and mission are predetermined because a seminary is to be a pre-committed entity that looks to Scripture for its purpose and mission. When a seminary looks to Scripture for its identity, it will be drawn to one inescapable conclusion: a seminary must exist For the Church. When Christ promised in Matthew 16 to build his church, it was more than a reference to a secondary kingdom initiative. Rather, it was a prophetic word, a declaration, as to his redemptive and kingdom intent.
After all, Christ died for his church. He is the head of his church. He is the church’s bridegroom. He gifts his followers for service in the church. He calls out pastors, teachers, and evangelists to equip his church. When baptized, believers are baptized into his church. Christ is currently building his church, and he will one day return for his church. In fact, Christ is so personalized with his church that he identifies persecution against his church as persecution of himself.
Therefore, Christ’s preoccupation with his church must inform a seminary’s rationale and mission. His pledge to build his church is not only a promise to which a seminary should cling, but it is also a mandate a seminary should embrace. After all, Jesus has promised to build his church—not his seminary.
Though in the New Testament the form of a seminary is more overheard than heard, the function of a seminary—teaching, equipping, mentoring, and sending—is heard quite clearly. In many ways, the entire trajectory and contour of the New Testament points to Christ fulfilling his promise to build his church. Moreover, the New Testament Epistles read like a veritable manual of how to do and how not to do church, conveying the predominant concern of health, growth, and faithfulness for the local church.
Cleavage between the seminary and the church is to the detriment of the former because it undermines its rationale for existence. That same cleavage also robs the church of further equipping for the work of ministry. If a seminary drifts from the church, the church will drift from it; if the seminary stops serving the church, the church will—and should—stop supporting it.
Of all denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention is uniquely positioned to enjoy seminaries that exist for the church. After all, the Southern Baptist Convention is nothing more than a confederation of churches, structured with a denominational framework that exists by, for, and as part of her churches.
By New Testament mandate, denominational expectation, and self-imposed determination, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary stands without compromise in its commitment to serve the local church. Thankfully, there is no question of identity or mission. Trustees and donors are not being polled to inform the identity of Midwestern Seminary. Focus groups are not being assembled and queried as to what our market niche should be. Faculty and students are not being surveyed to find our mission. On the contrary, with appropriate self-confidence, Midwestern Seminary is unquestionably committed to serving the church and is unapologetically bending her resources and energies toward this end.
This is not to suggest that other SBC seminaries or institutions beyond our denomination are not serving the church and not serving the church well. Nor is it to suggest that Midwestern Seminary in her past has not served the church, and served it well. This is to say that regardless of what other institutions are or are not doing, and regardless of what Midwestern Seminary has or has not done, the future is certain: Midwestern Seminary exists for the Church. Every proposed event, initiative, class, program, personnel hire, or decision made will be subjugated to one over-arching question: How will this help Midwestern Seminary fulfill its mission to serve the church?
For the Church is a vision to be implemented over every square inch of Midwestern Seminary’s campus, and it is a message to be carried to every corner of this great denomination. In the essays that follow, I will flesh out what this vision means for Midwestern Seminary. In the meantime, know Midwestern Seminary’s identity and mission are clear: Midwestern Seminary exists for the Church.
Church & Ministry, Education, Featured, For the Church Series, Other