Monday, 31 December 2012

Toward an Educated Free Will Baptist Clergy

 A major weakness of Free Will Baptists is that their ministers are typically less educated than the communities they serve. While many communities have highly educated leaders, many Free Will Baptists in those same communities attempt to do ministry with their own pastors having no formal ministerial education. Moreover, often Free Will Baptist pastors are significantly less educated in ministry than their counterparts in other denominations, putting them at a disadvantage in articulating and defending Free Will Baptist doctrine. This is especially true in urban settings where graduate degrees and even post-graduate degrees are common, but it is also true even in rural areas. While education is no guarantor of ministerial success, communities are not likely to rally around those church leaders who function at lower academic levels than community norms.
Since Free Will Baptist churches and associations are autonomous, the denomination cannot simply dictate that churches require their pastors to attain the standard MDiv degree (the Master’s of Divinity degree assumes 4 years of undergraduate Bachelors studies, followed by 3 years of ministerial graduate studies). Unfortunately, the denomination has done little to promote formal ministerial education over the years. The denomination has left this job to the various Free Will Baptist colleges which have done little to change the denominational culture of educational mediocrity or educational hostility. In this essay, I lay out a plan in which the denomination itself would promote formal ministerial training—a plan that I think will eventually have a major impact in coming years. 

My plan would begin with a denominational registry of ministers. The denomination does not ordain ministers, but Free Will Baptists generally recognize those ministers who are ordained by the local association of churches, with assumed reciprocity of ordination recognition from one association to another. Of course, a local church can ordain a minister on its own, but this does not confer associational ordination, which is the basic level of ordination for Free Will Baptists. The denomination has no right to impose standards for ordination on local associations, but could provide a registry service in which Free Will Baptist ministers are enrolled. This would afford an opportunity for the denomination to classify levels of ordination.

Any associational ordination would qualify as the basic level of ordination. It may be designated as “Standard Ordination,” or some such. Any minister with “Standard Ordination” may have an advanced status if he has an undergraduate degree with a major in Bible, theology, or ministry. This status may be designated as “Professional Ordination,” or some such. For those ordained ministers who have been graduated with an M.Div., which is the standard ministerial degree of most denominations and seminaries, or its equivalent, the ordination status of “Advanced Professional Ordination,” or some such, may be conferred. Thus, there would be a three-tier level of ordination recognized by the denominational registry:

·         Standard Ordination: basic associational ordination
·         Professional Ordination: B.S. or B.A., with a major in Bible, theology, or ministry from a recognized college or university
·         Advanced Professional Ordination: M.Div. from a recognized seminary or graduate school.

What good would a registry serve? What would motivate Free Will Baptists to use the registry? Since use of the registry cannot be compulsory, there must be a motivator to get Free Will Baptists to use it. Of course, one such motivator is available.

One of the great needs of Free Will Baptist is a denomination-wide means of connecting ministers seeking churches with churches seeking ministers. Naturally, this would be the domain of the Home Missions Department (National Ministries?), or perhaps the Executive Office which would be responsible for promoting and keeping the registry. Currently, most churches seeking ministers approach their respective state association ministries or other informal networks. A national registry would supplement or perhaps supersede the current informal and sometimes less than efficient network. Moreover, churches seeking a new pastor could specify the level of ordination for potential applicants.

The Home Missions Department would work with state agencies. For example, in order to be included in the registry, the minister would have to demonstrate his associational ordination and be recommended for ministry by the state associational moderator, clerk or State Promotional Secretary. This would help assure quality ministers for local churches. Of course, more details would have to hammered out once this plan were to receive serious consideration.

In addition to providing help to grateful ministers and churches, this registry would reinforce the message that formal ministerial training is important for modern ministry. This is an important first step toward promoting an educated clergy for the 21st century, and would be preliminary to a subsequent phase of promoting creative educational opportunities for ministers and church leaders.

Friday, 28 December 2012

How to Promote Scholarship on a Shoe-string Budget

 One of the most desperate needs of a denomination is a regular influx of young scholarship. The influence of a young educator named L.C. Johnson on Free Will Baptists history illustrates that point. The impact of his articulation of Arminian Baptist theology can hardly be exaggerated. Under his tutelage, two of the most articulate Arminian Baptist theologians arose, F. Leroy Forlines and Robert E. Picirilli, both of whom have become well known theologians in current Calvinist-Arminian discussions. These two theologians are greatly responsible for steering the course of Free Will Baptists over the last 50 years.

One might argue that Forlines and Picirilli are indispensible to Free Will Baptists, but the tyranny of time dictates that a new generation of scholars needs to be raised up to face the challenges of the coming years. Here is a strategy for nurturing young scholars without excessive expenditure of denominational resources.

My proposed Free Will Baptist Young Scholars Program (FWBYSP) at Welch College could be implemented in the 2014-2015 school year. It would follow a year of fund raising in which $3000-5000 would be raised and set aside to fund the project. Late in the school year of 2013-2014, college juniors would apply for membership in YSP, submitting theological essays for consideration. The theology/Bible department would select five of these juniors to participate in the YSP in their senior year, based upon appropriate criteria, including the theological essay. These essays would be submitted to Integrity journal for possible publication.

The key instructive and training element of the YSP would be monthly lunch gatherings, hosted by the college president. These informal gatherings would include a lunch of cold cuts, drinks, etc., organized by a theologically interested college junior. The theology and Bible faculty would meet and interact casually with the YSP participants at the beginning of the luncheon until the speaker presents his lecture. The topic for lectures would be set by the Bible faculty. Speakers would be chosen from the faculty or may involve guest speakers. Guest speakers might be supplied through the many scholarly friends of Welch College. Guest speakers might be given a token remuneration.  

Another key element of the YSP would be the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Biblical Literature. Two of the most promising participants of the YSP will be granted $500 toward travel and expenses. Two of the Bible and Theology faculty will also be comparably funded to travel with the two chosen participants.

The final element will be a $1000 scholarship to be awarded to one of the five participants who applies and is accepted for graduate studies in an area of Christian studies. A primary consideration for the scholarship will be a new essay on a topic of the student’s choosing that would be worthy of submission to the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. The recipient of the scholarship award will agree to present a paper either at the annual theological symposium or at one of the YSP’s monthly luncheons in the coming academic year.

Preserving FWB Doctrine for a Future Generation

It is by a divine providence, I think, that Free Will Baptists have been made stewards of a very pure strand of Christian theology—let me call it “Arminian Baptist.” This strand of Christian theology is nowhere else credibly preserved in North America or Western Europe by a viable denominational body. To be sure, Free Will Baptists are well centered in the mainstream of Christian theology, affirming the major creeds of the Christian Church, enthusiastically endorsing the Protestant Reformation, and reflecting the doctrine of the Believers’ Church by replacing Infant Baptism with Believers’ Baptism. Within this larger context, however, Free Will Baptists comprise the sole denomination that preserves the Arminian Soteriology of Arminius (not all so-called Arminianism would be endorsed by Arminius) within a Baptist framework. An historical survey would demonstrate the unique standing of Free Will Baptists within this theological strand, but such is not the purpose of this essay. Rather, assuming that Free Will Baptists have been granted stewardship of this very pure strand of Christian theology, this essay asks what responsibilities this stewardship entails for Free Will Baptists, and suggests ways in which these responsibilities might be met.

Preliminarily, let me stress that this theological strand is worth preserving. In an ecclesiological and missiological environment where doctrinal distinctives are suppressed in favor of unity and cooperation, especially as they are exacerbated by cultural and philosophical relativism, one is tempted to undervalue theological purity and sound biblical interpretation. Yes, Free Will Baptists should be eager to cooperate in various mission endeavors, and should treat other Christians who disagree on denominational distinctives as genuine brothers and sisters in Christ. However, precisely because Free Will Baptists maintain a theological purity based on sound biblical interpretation, they should promote their doctrine, form and nourish their closest theological associations, and persuade other Christians from other denominations to join them.

On a personal note, I began my graduate education with a thorough grounding in Free Will Baptist theology, but without denominational blessing or support network. Thus, I flew from my FWB denominational nest into a world, academic and ecclesiastical, that would challenge my Free Will Baptist theology at the highest levels, and at every opportunity, and with great intensity. After the purifying ovens of my Master’s at Regent (under the heavyweights Fee, Waltke, Packer, and Peterson—Assemblies of God, Presbyterian, and Anglican), and even hotter ovens during my PhD at Cambridge with all its critical elitism, I have emerged with my FWB theology fully intact, enriched, but not compromised, clarified, but not altered. Free Will Baptists have a doctrine that can withstand the utmost scrutiny and is worth preserving.

Privilege and Weakness
It is remarkable that such a potent and pure theology is concentrated in such a narrow band of Christianity. One would think that the elements which comprise Arminian Baptist thought—Baptist associationalism, Congregationalism, Believers’ Church, a Whosoever-will Soteriology, and Continuance in Salvation by faith—all sound doctrines based upon good scriptural exegesis, would coalesce into a very wide swath of the Christian church. Such is not the case. Indeed, one might argue that these doctrinal distinctives are so rarely held that they are at risk of being lost, to be swallowed up by a number of competing denominations that come close to such doctrinal purity, but fail to preserve them in full strength and wholeness.

As it now stands, the FWB denomination is the sole domain of Arminian Baptist thought. Free Will Baptists have about 2500 churches, and about 250,000 members. The denomination is predominately rural, with few churches in the large cities; many states have no FWB church at all. FWB missions reach into less than a dozen of the world’s 200 or so nations. FWBs are seriously disadvantaged in terms of professional ministerial training, having no seminary or graduate school, and with very few of its ministers attaining a basic MDiv qualification or higher degree. Perhaps as few as 50% of FWB ministers have even a Bachelor’s degree, in any academic major. FWBs with a terminal degree are extremely rare; even at the denominational college where Bible is a required major, only two full time professors in the areas of Bible and Theology have terminal degrees. Very, very few Free Will Baptists serve as scholars outside denominational institutions, so that Free Will Baptists have no perceptible impact on American society, let alone, any world-wide impact. A bibliography of articles, books, or reviews written by Free Will Baptist scholars published by academic publishers would hardly fill more than a single sheet of paper. Outside of the Calvinist-Arminian controversy, Free Will Baptist scholars are entirely unknown.

Strengthening Our Grip
If Free Will Baptists are to nurture and expand their stewardship of Arminian Baptist thought, an overarching plan needs to be implemented to produce and train scholars devoted to the cause. My essay here is no such plan, but does contain some limited suggestions, especially in regard to FWB scholarship.

1.      A study needs to be implemented to detail the needs and assess the present resources of the denomination, and to articulate a vision for the future.
2.      The denominational college needs to be put on a more secure financial footing to rectify weaknesses in faculty and staff.
3.      A graduate school or seminary needs to be established.
4.      Denominational scholars need to be awarded sabbaticals, including income and expense stipends, to pursue scholarly research and publication.
5.      Denominational scholars in the field of biblical studies and religion should attend annual conferences such as Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion, with expenses paid.
6.      Denominational scholars should prioritize publication of journal articles in Journal of Biblical Literature and Journal of Evangelical Theological Society, and similar academic journals. This can only be done if the institutions in which they serve allow adequate time to focus on such endeavors.
7.      A few students at the denominational college who are especially interested in theology and religion should be encouraged to attend these annual conferences under the mentorship of denominational scholars.
8.      In particular, one or two scholarships covering expenses should be awarded to deserving students annually, perhaps qualified by theological papers suitable for publication in the denomination’s Integrity journal.
9.      Denominational scholarships should be established to support graduate and post-graduate studies for outstanding students.

The introduction of outstanding students to the biblical studies and religion guilds is extremely important for the future of the denomination. While readers may despair of ever finding the money to support some of these more or less obvious needs in these difficult times, sponsoring young scholars would not require extravagant expense. In particular, how difficult would it be to raise $2500-3000 per year as a special scholarship to pay a substantial amount of the expense to send three outstanding college seniors to the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, accompanied by a couple of the denomination’s senior scholars? Even as little as a hundred dollars from each of say, 20 state associations would cover these scholarships. Likewise, even a token one-time scholarship gift of $1000 for a deserving seminary-bound student would do much to strengthen the ties between the student and denomination, and to encourage the student to think of future work within the denomination.

Formulating a vision for the future of Free Will Baptists may prove to be an insurmountable task. However, taking some smaller steps to promote scholarship, and especially to foster the growth of young scholars, is a goal that is achievable, and can be accomplished in just a few short years.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Inescapable Questions of Life & Apologetics

F. Leroy Forlines
One of the many ingenious contributions to theological thought made by Reformation Arminian theologian Leroy Forlines is his discussion of the inescapable questions of life. Perhaps someone else has made more of this issue, but I haven't otherwise come across it in my reading and research.

The inescapable questions of life ask,
  • How did I get here?
  • Is there a God? If so, how can I know him?
  • What is my purpose in life?
  • Is there life after death?
  • What do I do about feelings of guilt?
  • Etc.
Forlines is right to point out these questions which, I think, are indeed inescapable. They can hardly be ignored. Although often suppressed, they rise to the surface again and again, whether the occasion is a new born baby, the death of a loved one, the tragedy of divorce, problems with finding a job and supporting one's family, or simply the quiet moments on a sunny beach when the relentless, monotonous waves give one a moment for pause.

Sometimes life's circumstances are so intense that these questions come screaming at us. Ultimately, if we cannot find satisfactory answers to these questions, we are driven to despair, and abandon all hope of finding meaning to life, and end up living as bitter cynics. Indeed, one can argue that the whole purpose of religion is to find an answer to these questions, and that one's commitment to a particular religion is largely dependent on how satisfactorily the religious system answers these questions. 

For this reason, a discussion of the inescapable questions of life may have some apologetical value in the defense of one's religion. What good is one's religion if it does not satisfactorily answer one's deepest and most urgent questions?

Along these lines, one should ask, How is it that the human constitution is indelibly marked by such questions? It is difficult to argue that they are a product of a natural process, apart from a creator God who is personal. 

Monday, 17 December 2012

Intellectual Pursuit Does Not Lead to Apostasy

I think it is an obvious truth that people don't give up their faith for intellectual reasons. If this were true, there would be no intellectuals of faith. People who claim that they abandoned the faith because it was not intellectually compelling to them are perhaps telling only part of the story. Yet, as brilliant as some apostates are, I'm not sure anyone would put their native intelligence up against that of someone like the late Cambridge Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity Graham Stanton whose faith was well attested to the day he died. Likewise, Gordon Fee knows so much about textual criticism that he could cut the legs off any argument against the reliability of the New Testament text, off the top of his head. Some of history's greatest minds were people of Christian faith, people who are intellectual giants in comparison with even the best of moderns.

No, people don't quit believing for intellectual reasons. They may make such claims, but to do so they must presume to understand facts and history and logic better than people such as Carl F. H. Henry, Francis Schaeffer, F.F. Bruce, or Alvin Plantinga, and such claims will not stand. They are but mere excuses.

People don't forfeit their faith for intellectual reasons. Rather, people withdraw their faith in Christ because in life's circumstances, they become disappointed with Jesus and God personally. People who abandon Christ in the storms of life often resort to the intellectual excuse because it is easier to attack one's former faith than to delve deeply into a serious analysis of their personal relationship with Jesus.

Apostasy is not a new phenomenon. John the Revelator saw a great tide of persecution about to engulf the seven churches in Asia (Rev 2-3), and he perceived that their spiritual weaknesses made them vulnerable to apostasy. The only way that these churches would withstand such a great persecution was to renew their relationship with Christ (cf. John's condemnation of the church of Ephesus for having left its first love). It is to those who have fallen so far that Jesus says the words, "Behold I stand at the door and knock."