The Slavery of God
I used to believe that all evangelical theologians were a gift from God. This is what my Reformed background taught me. My honest confession in this short piece is that I no longer believe that. In fact, evangelical seminaries and Bible schools are turning out a great number of men and women who are anything but such a gift. They are turning out men and women who while they may be intellectually brilliant, are spiritual paperweights. Intellectual veracity, no matter how much wonderful truth it puts forth in writing, is no sure indicator of Godliness or usefulness to the church.
Roland Allen in his prophetic work The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, wrote nearly one hundred years ago:
As the complement of experience, doctrine renews its youth from age to age; but divorced from experience it is nothing more than the statement of an intellectual theory, and to rest in something which an intellectual process has created is to rest in that which an intellectual process can destroy. Doctrine, accepted either as an intellectual satisfaction, or as an authoritative pronouncement, divorced from experience, has no power in itself. (pg. 51)
Upon examining the saliency of Allen’s comment, two points stand to be made. The first is to question whether the very system, which the Western church has adopted to train and men and women for ministry, has not become the very system that is also plundering our church’s spiritual heritage. Note that this is not a question about this seminary’s doctrine versus that seminary’s doctrine but the very form of seminary itself. The form carries out it’s plundering by making God a mere piece of meat to be prodded and poked at. He becomes a chattel slave whom the wise intellectual overlords put to work in the cane fields if only to satisfy their thirst for knowledge that masquerades as a love of the one enslaved.
Making God the pursuit of intellectual knowledge rather then obedient adoration produces a whole host of unwanted outcomes. Among them are men who walk through spiritual darkness during this time in their life, men who leave the faith and men who in fact, become opponents of the faith. What is even scarier is that the western church is so captive to its model that it actually believes the form to be mendable. Seminaries are trying to add components of the practical life (read: experience) to their “curriculum,” and yet despite this effort, well intentioned though it may be, we still find ourselves in this deplorable situation. At some point we have to stop and seriously consider that the form of seminary is foundationally undermining the things being learned there.
However, the gravest problem does not lie in what this form does to the men and women who carry the yoke but rather what it does to the congregations amongst whom they minister. The people of God are crying out to be followers of Jesus! The men and women in the pews want to be fishers of men, they want to know the power of God in prayer, they want to experience. Yet when people cry out to know God (I mean to “know” God in the J.I. Packer sense of knowing God), we are giving them the gruel of intellectual theory. And then the masses of God’s children are weighted down with more reading about God and less living of the Christian life.
Is there a way out? Yes. There is. If we truly want to free God from the chains of western training models and seminaries, we need a new paradigm where obedience based discipleship becomes our modus operandi for all of God’s people. In this crucible, theology is still created, but it is only formed as reflection during obedience comes into contact with the Word of God. This will produce a doctrine that is life giving and powerful. There would be no more theological training schools. Theological training would just be the living out of obedient, every day Christianity in the context of the church. It would be as Roland Allen puts it, spontaneous.
What is more is that it will make the church, the true executor and gatekeeper of her theology. When all of God’s people are called to radical obedience, they are equally participative in the creation and guarding of theology. This model promotes protection by the priesthood of believers rather than protection by the priesthood of a few.
If the church is to be revitalized in the West, it is not going to take a doubling down on advancing more in our intellectual theology. It is going to take a path of radical obedience by all of Christ’s disciples who are busy working out theology deeply rooted in the day-to-day experience of following Jesus, be they a vocational minster or not.
Then and only then will God be free to leave the plantation.