Yesterday Christianity Today announced that Michael Pahl has been released by the University of Cedarville because he did not affirm a so-called “literal” reading of Genesis 1-2 (see “Crisis of Faith Statements”). I admit that I have been depressed by evangelicalism’s purging of quality scholars from evangelical educational institutions on the basis of some of the silliest things. As far back as Peter Enns’ departure from Westminster Theological Seminary in 2008 I have been aware of the signs that the fundamentalist branch of evangelicalism is skeptical of scholars in their own ranks. I think they fear that some scholars are “conceding ground” to “liberals”. We’ve seen the emergence of Neo-Fundamentalist groups like the Mars Hill brand and The Gospel Coalition arise in order to combat what some sense to be a threat to orthodoxy. I know this is nothing new, but I was born in 1982, so this is the first version of the fight between fundamentalist and progressives that I have witnessed.
I departed from a sect known as Oneness Pentecostalism several years ago. I thought “evangelicalism” was a big tent movement with a lot of space. It was a relief to go somewhere where I knew foundational doctrines like the resurrection were affirmed while (I thought) there was going to be charity on the so-called “non-essentials”. Oh how naive! The college that I attended was associated with Oneness Pentecostalism, and there was a lot of heresy hunting (ironic, since most Christians think Oneness Pentecostals are heretics), and I felt like it was such a distraction. I knew real, genuine Christians who did not read Genesis 1 literally, who affirmed the truthfulness of evolutionary theory, who thought there may be historical mistakes in the Bible, who didn’t conform to traditional gender roles, and so forth and so on. Evangelicalism was this new land where Brian McLaren lived with Rob Bell who lived with some “Reformed” pastor named Mark Driscoll and everyone read both N.T. Wright and J.I. Packer. Yes, there were some fundamentalist groups who attacked this ecumenism, but who paid attention to them, right? Wrong.
One day it dawned on me that things weren’t as crisp and clean as I supposed. I remember a long standing professor at my seminary suddenly “retired,” and it was uncomfortable, and I knew there was some tension between the professor and the institution, but I didn’t know the cause. This professor went quietly and never did I find out what happened, but I heard whispers, and I was confused. Over the years there has been Bruce Waltke’s awkward departure from Reformed Theological Seminary, Tremper Longman III’s revoked invitation from the same institution, The Licona Controversy, the dismissal of Anthony LeDonne from Lincoln Christian University, the recent threats against Chris Rollston from Emmanuel Christian Seminary, and the aforementioned release of Pahl from Cedarville University.
While I was wrestling with whether or not I could use the word “inerrant” to describe Scripture (with good conscience) I decided to chat with a professor friend of mine. He told me that he could see a lot of doors closing (as far as teaching at evangelical seminaries is concerned) if I decide against using the word “inerrancy,” but he thought most Christian liberal arts colleges wouldn’t be concerned either way. I think this belief is being proven wrong. Seminaries and Christian liberal arts colleges are involved in this mess. Rather than being thankful for the dedicated scholars in their midst they portray them as wolves among the sheep.
Now this gets me to the main point of this post: I mentioned in Part I that I think there may be an opportunity for local churches to benefit from the mistakes of these institutions. Why not hire a “resident scholar” to guide the education of your church? I know, sometimes this is not possible financially, but I presume you can get teachers for cheap these days with all of the uncertainty of the job market. That said, I am aware, well aware, that it is not educational institutions alone who fear scholars–it is pastors too. No, not each and every pastor, but enough. And some of those pastors may be the donors who are pressuring these institutions. Yet I remain hopeful.
Hopeful for what? That there are enough pastors who fit the following criteria:
(1) Humble enough to admit that someone else may be a benefit to your church when it comes to teaching the church to think.
(2) Confident that scholars who are Christians aren’t heretics, but real Christians who are seeking to address real questions and concerns proposed by critical scholarship.
I remain baffled by how many evangelical pastors read N.T. Wright, but who when push comes to shove wouldn’t hire someone who shares his beliefs on the authority of Scripture, how we should think about evolution, and the role of women in the church!
I understand these pastors take the Bible seriously. I understand that they don’t want the Gospel “watered down,” but that isn’t happening. Confessional scholars who honestly engage critical scholarship share these commitments. Trust me.
In San Francisco I had an amazing pastor who let me teach, supported me, and he gave me room to ask questions! He wasn’t horrified by my concerns that 2 Peter may not have been written by the apostle Peter. Honestly, if that church wasn’t small and in the midst of a very expensive city (therefore, unable to hire someone like me) I think I would rather have been hired by him to teach at his church than most seminaries and colleges organized by evangelicals. Why? He knew as a man pastoring in a city like San Francisco that there are essentials, non-essentials, and a need for charity. He had skeptics in the pews who would not accept pre-packaged answers. He respected my willingness to venture down the road of doubt with people inquiring into Christianity or people within Christianity who were not sure if they should remain.
I saw the trust he gave me and I respected it. When I taught introduction to New Testament one summer and exegesis of the Book of James during another I didn’t overload the class with the technicalities of critical scholarship, but I wasn’t banned from answering the hard questions honestly when asked after class either. In Portland I had a pastor who gave me the same freedom and I made sure to respect that. I didn’t spend my time trying to shake people with the findings of modern scholarship. I focused on the narrative, liturgical qualities of Scripture, and it worked fine.
Maybe there are more pastors who will have a vision for education in their churches? Maybe we can make space for people to study, write, and teach in the church? We hire “pastors” for “evangelism,” “hospitality,” “administration,” and a billion other positions that sound a lot like someone is running a business. Why not invest in an educator?
During my last year in San Francisco I was ‘Director of Education’ for the church. I didn’t know how good I had it (if only I could have afforded to live there). I was plenty busy with my paying job, my seminary studies, and my engagement to my future wife, but we did come up with some great ideas:
- We planned on offering a week night class.
- We planned on offering a summer intensive course.
- We planned on developing a Life Milestones Program where children being raised in our community would have events to celebrate like their dedication, their baptism, a first communion, a “coming of age” (like a Bar Mitzvah) celebration, and a big celebration when they graduated high school. This was an evangelical version of bringing the church into the life of the child.
- We planned on writing material for the church’s teaching departments (e.g., Sunday school, high school, young adults).
As you can see, there was plenty to do–enough for the beginnings of a paid position (in my opinion) for churches that can afford it. Add to this person’s job description things like preaching on occasion and developing important worship gatherings around seasons like Advent and Easter, and viola! you have an associate pastor-like position that focuses on education.
Let me add though, this person should be given time to write, support to go to events like the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, and so forth.
Is it possible that there are pastors who have this vision? who are willing to make room in the budget for this type of person? who trust the sincerity and orthodoxy of those who approach critical scholarship as believers? I think so.
I’ve said enough: Let me know your thoughts! It would be nice to hear from pastors especially.