A Dangerous Business

Here’s the text of an article I wrote on the ‘Dangerous Business’ of theological education, published in the latest Irish Bible Institute newsletter. One of the most encouraging things for me in re-reading this is how it ties in with what students actually said themselves about the transforming power of theological education. In other words, the three themes talked about below are actually happening; it isn’t just theory or nice ideas or empty words.

Feel welcome to contribute to a discussion on these. If you have studied at a theological college, what sort of experience did you have? Are you put off going to a Bible College for some reason (other than time and money)? How well can the sort of things described below happen outside a college setting in a local church? Would you list different priorities of what theological training is all about?

A DANGEROUS BUSINESS

January 2015 marked 20 years that I’ve been involved in theological education. So this is a good time to reflect! What difference does Bible College actually make in the lives of students? Let me share three themes that I hope and work and pray to see develop in the lives of students who come to IBI.

  1. Learn more about God’s redemptive story and your place within it

The ultimate source of Christian theology is the Bible. Therefore the Bible is (or should be) central to all Christian ministry and all theological education. So far, so obvious – I teach at a Bible Institute after all. But what do we mean when we say the Bible is central to Christian training?

When I started out teaching, I assumed that the ‘right’ way to introduce students to the highpoints of Christian theology was in systematic categories. Isn’t that what most evangelical statements of faith do? – a series of bullet point summaries of what is believed about God, Scripture, Man, Jesus, Spirit, the future and so on. But after trying this for a while I (and I think the students) felt increasingly something was missing.

Now of course this might just have been the teaching (!) but it felt too much like a series of disconnected topics. It also felt too much like the purpose of the exercise was primarily to ‘know’ the ‘right’ information and so the content became too much about ‘us’ – defining ‘our’ theology. The biggest problem was that there did not seem to be much connection to mission and discipleship – the heart of the Christian life.

I’d better throw in two clarifications here. I believe in the importance of right doctrine and the supreme authority of Scripture. But over time I’ve come to love and appreciate the Bible more and more as one great all-embracing narrative with Jesus Christ at the centre of the story. And the purpose of that story is not given to us just as interesting information, but for personal and corporate transformation.

The Bible tells the (true) story of universal history. Its opening chapter begins with creation and its closing chapter ends with new creation. In between, we are given the story of Israel which, after many twists and turns, culminates in the promised saviour. Jesus is the ‘shocking’ Messiah no-one expects: a crucified man who is also creator, judge and resurrected Lord of both Jews and Gentiles, before whom every knee will bow (Phil 2:10).

Too often we reduce this story down to Jesus as my personal saviour. While this is true for every believer, on its own it individualises the gospel and narrows the Bible story to be ‘all about me’. This is why I have re-shaped my teaching to a more narrative shape. This changes how we ‘do’ theology profoundly. It is the Bible asking questions of us. It puts us and our narrow concerns off centre and in their proper place within the flow of God’s work in the world, and taking our (small) place within the story of God’s people (more of that in a moment).

The more you read the Bible this way, the more all the great doctrines of the Christian faith – such as justification by faith, sin and salvation, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the mission of the church, the future hope – make sense. I want students to ‘get’ the biblical storyline, and how the myriad of sub-plots fit within the redemptive mission of the triune God. This draws them in afresh to that story and their place of serving the Lord within the story of their own lives. And that’s one of the most satisfying and exciting things to see happen in someone’s life.

  1. See your whole life as a calling to participate in God’s mission within God’s people

But there is more to biblical theology than even this. It’s also exciting to see students ‘get’ how intimately the gospel is connected to God’s choice of a people to bear his name. In other words, understanding the Bible as a narrative connects individual faith with the mission of the church.

This goes against the grain of our individualised, consumerist, Western culture where, even for Christians, church becomes an ‘optional extra’ to ‘my’ faith. But the Bible will have none of this. The identity and mission of each individual Christian is to be worked out within the role given to the church within the mission of God. It is an incredible privilege and high calling to be invited by God’s grace to join in with others in his redemptive work in the world! How many job offers like that do you get in a lifetime?

This leads to how good theological training is taught and lived out with others in a local church community. A goal of going to Bible College is therefore far more than mere academic progress; it should help to equip and train students to preach, teach, do pastoral care, evangelism, lead, listen, and model a life of service to Jesus alongside other brothers and sisters within the family of God, wherever exactly God has placed them (Eph. 4:11-13).

  1. Being transformed by the Spirit to love God, love others

A third theme is how God’s primary agenda for students, and for every Christian, is personal transformation into the likeness (image) of his Son (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor.3:18). As Jesus both taught and demonstrated, love is both the motive and the practical form of a truly Christian life. Love is the primary result of the Spirit’s transforming presence. It is love alone which is eternal (1 Cor. 13:13) and without love all Christian ministry is a waste of time (1 Cor. 13:1-3). Love is most supremely demonstrated at the cross of Christ and gives shape to all Christian ministry (1 Cor. 9): it is not about the self – our own agendas and ambitions and achievements, but about loving and serving others for whom Christ died (1 Cor. 8:11). And for many Christians globally, sacrificial love leads to suffering.

So it has become clearer and clearer to me over the last 20 years that love is the first and most essential ‘mark’ of authentic Christian ministry. It is why ‘character’ or ‘Christian maturity’ is in Scripture the primary ‘qualification’ for any ministry. This is why the relational track record of someone in life and ministry is of primary importance, not just a footnote at the bottom of their CV. Therefore any form of theological education that does not place a high importance on Christian character is failing to do its job.

Conclusion

Understanding the Bible; knowing your true identity and calling; joining with others in serving the risen Lord; participating in God’s mission to redeem this broken world whatever the cost; being transformed, head, heart and hands, to love God and love others – this is what going to Bible College is all about. It’s a dangerous business – might God be daring you to give it a try?

Patrick Mitchel

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