Theological Education in Churches of Christ: Prospects and Perspectives (Part One) by Mark W. Hamilton

Once upon a time, a group of cousins inherited a large mansion, one of those plantation houses with wide be-columned porches all about, from which the owners could gaze across verdant lawns down to the river. It had once been glorious, and parts of it still were, though it had recently fallen into decay. “What shall we do with it,” said the cousins to each other. “It’s beautiful just the way it is,” said one. “Don’t change a thing. This it the way it was planned, and no one should touch it.” “No, no,” insisted another. “Nothing good ever happened in this house, and nothing good ever will. Tear it down or sell it. There’s a lot of rot and mildew and who knows what.” A third chimed in, “Granted there are problems with the plumbing on the east side of the house, but we don’t have to go there. The west side is where we used to get together at Christmas and tell stories and sing songs. Don’t you remember the time…” Her voice trailed off wistfully. “Maybe we can just stay in this part and not go in the other.” Then the last answered, “Cousins, we have to fix the house. It’s got some great bones, but it does need work. We need to fix it for our kids and their kids.”

Now you might ask me to explain my little parable. The interpretation is this: Churches of Christ in my lifetime have experienced a two-generations-long identity crisis. The cousins have argued back and forth, sometimes for good reason, sometimes not. Some of us practice systematic denial of reality (both the arch-conservatives and the neo-denominationalists, albeit differently), others seem wedded to snarky criticism of the past (the so-called progressives), but some of us must work to repair and remodel the old house so that it can be a fit residence for the future. What must we do?

Part of the reform will involve the training and support of leaders and thus the purposes and practices of theological education. To help Churches of Christ reclaim our highest values and deepest commitments, we must reconsider the roles of ministerial leaders and the ways in which theological education prepares them for those roles. We must identify the contradictions and problems that we inherited, the theological landscape of our time and place, and the resources and strategies for moving into the future. And we must intentionally form the next generation of leaders as men and women who systematically imitate Jesus Christ. Then we will be better able to discern God’s leadings for our whole community.

Where we have been 

To retrace our steps to this point, we might begin at the beginning. In his 1839 prospectus for Bethany College, Alexander Campbell envisioned a school in which students would learn all that was “rational, moral, and subservient to good taste,” in which critical study of the Bible without “scholastic or traditionary [sic] theology” would create an environment hospitable to the formation of Christian persons. No one would be trained for clerical leadership, for the movement neither wanted nor needed a professional clergy. This model for education of all Christians in a liberal arts environment has shaped Churches of Christ profoundly, as can be attested to by the tens of thousands of alumni of our universities holding leadership positions in our churches – and a lot of other churches – around the world. Much of that impact has been to the good, and we should be grateful for the work of all who served before us.

Yet there is a problem here, and we must name it. In spite of many successes, it became clear by the end of the nineteenth century that the failure to train clergy as such was a serious mistake. Not only was it not possible to teach everyone all the things required by ministry as it had evolved over the centuries, but also it was not possible to train ministers properly in a strictly liberal arts environment. Thus as early as the 1920s, schools like Abilene Christian College attempted and failed to build full-fledged seminaries, and by the late 1940s, Pepperdine, Harding, and ACC had moved toward a mixed model. Bible departments taught every student the rudiments of biblical theology, and they formed ministers at increasingly advanced educational levels. Faculty carried heavy burdens in doing all this, but they managed, often at significant personal sacrifice, as long as the schools’ student bodies were relatively homogenous theologically, ethnically, and socioeconomically. It was possible to pretend not to be training a professional clergy because we were also training everyone else at some level and because the theological gaps between pulpit and pew were relatively narrow.

That mixed model has often served us well in creating vigorous lay leadership but has left unanswered the vital questions of just what it means to be ministers of the gospel in a full-time, ordained sort of way. Our language betrays us here because we seem unwilling to call our ministers what they in fact are (and I think often should be): professionals. They are not professionals who do everything for us, but rather people who aid us in our work, who are ordained (designated, appointed, consecrated) for special roles that not everyone has. Some men and women need to have the formation that allows them to practice ministry all the time in healthy ways so that they can prepare and support others to do so as part of their lives. The solution to the crisis of leadership is not to abandon leading but to equip people in a range of complementary ways.

So now we come to a second problem. Until the past decade, most of our Church of Christ colleges were extremely homogenous institutions, especially theologically. Most students, identified their religious commitments with Churches of Christ, and all faculty members did so. The insider stories, assumptions, and even jokes formed part of the discourse in such environments. That discourse could be critiqued in various ways – and was – and students could read far beyond its boundaries – and did, as least in some places – but the world of our schools was still comparatively closed theologically speaking. We read about this or that theological movement, but no exponent of them ever taught at our schools. The non-denomination could have many of the trappings of a denomination without acknowledging them. I do not mean that everyone was sectarian. Not at all. But the non-sectarianism of even our most progressive schools had no practical implications in terms of hiring, student selection, curriculum development, the choice of outside speakers, and other tangible practices. Nor did we encourage students entering full-time ministry to practice their theoretical ecumenism. Rather, theological diversity lay hidden under a bushel.

This double-mindedness has clearly become untenable today. In many of our universities, far fewer than half our students come from Churches of Christ. Brand loyalty is much weaker among all students, so that being “from” Churches of Christ need not imply a commitment to stay in them. (And conversely, some of our best young leaders come from outside our tribe – so migration goes both ways!) This means that the practices that allowed us to form lay leaders for Churches of Christ must be rethought in depth, and that we must learn to take seriously the priesthood of all believers and the catholicity of the Church in new ways. The gap between the theological assumptions of alumni and those of current students is wide and growing. Professors increasingly assume a mediatorial role, explaining each side to the other.

For the formation of ordained ministers, the changing climate creates new challenges as well. We meet ecumenical opportunities in a much more direct way. We face squarely the challenge of training ministers who will work in post-sectarian congregations of varying forms and structures. They will need to work hard to rethink long-held traditions in light of new realities, especially the new reality that Christians today can draw on the whole storehouse of Christian practices and ideas, not just those that constellated in particular denominations or traditions (including our own). Such a process is enriching the lives of many of us and has been doing so for a long time as we recover the spiritual discoveries of past generations of saints.

In any case, the realities that those who created our schools of theology in the 1950s and 1960s could assume simply do not exist anymore. This is the news I must tell you, and this is why I think conversation is vital. the apparent solidarity of Churches of Christ during the 1950s and 1960s has vanished into the past. It has been vanishing for a long time.

Now some people would see all this as bad news. I disagree. Quite to the contrary, I think it’s the best possible news. It means that we are now – finally – poised to take seriously what our teachers taught us about a vision of non-sectarian Christianity in which human beings reflect adequately the justice and mercy and goodness of God. What must we do now? That is the subject of the next post.

After ministering in churches in Connecticut and Massachusetts, Mark Hamilton completed his Ph.D. at Harvard University and moved to ACU in 2000.   There he teaches courses in Biblical Hebrew and Old Testament.  He has been a visiting professor at universities in the United States, South Korea, New Zealand, Croatia, Russia, and Ghana, and during 2014 was the Seymour Gitin Visiting Professor at the Albright Institute in Jerusalem. He preaches regularly in churches and writes curricula for adult Christian education programs.  He also serves as an elder of the University Church of Christ in Abilene.  Mark is author of more than 150 articles, chapters in books, and reviews.  He is also the author or editor of five books, with two more in progress.

We believe that learning is a lifelong process and that those of us who teach make a commitment to continue our learning throughout our lives. The Adams Center exists to promote the lifelong learning of Abilene Christian University’s faculty as they strive to integrate their faith and their discipline.

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CHARIS hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. The website is intended to support education for Christian life and community through contemporary discussions and historical sources that variously witness to the gifts (“charis”) of God among Churches of Christ, especially their plea for visible unity among Christians through ongoing renewal and restoration of Scriptural beliefs and practices among God’s people.

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