Saturday, October 27, 2007

SWNIDish Reflections: Evangelical Gloom

We recently have been preoccupied with our interactions with colleagues at other institutions of biblical higher education. In our deanish capacity, we often attend meetings at which the deanish and presidential creatures of other Bible colleges hang out to speak their minds.

And we have been wondering lately why our peers' minds seem strangely different from our own.

Some anecdotes that illustrate:

  • In a roundtable meeting of senior leader-types of such institutions, all acknowledge enthusiastically that in the last 20 years, regional accrediting associations have become increasingly open to Bible colleges. They acknowledge further that the regionals have done little or nothing to interfere with the beliefs or missions of their institutions. But then the conversation turns dark as one says that an "expert" tells him to expect the regionals to require his institution to hire practicing homosexuals within five years.
  • In a discussion of what makes a Bible college distinct from other institutions of higher education, including Christian colleges teaching a traditional arts and sciences curriculum (what is historically labeled "liberal arts," not a term that one can utter these days without causing someone heartburn), a similar group discusses the term "missional." They show great enthusiasm for the term until one offers the bleak remark that the word has been co-opted by the "emergent church movement" to mean something "very different from what we mean," thereby destroying the commitment to the gospel of many formerly faithful churches as they promote the "social gospel." Thereafter, no one save our SWNIDish self wants to speak for the term as an apt descriptor of their institutions.
  • In a meeting discussing the US Department of Education's plans for accreditation, a senior figure of the Bible college movement declares that he sees the plans of (Republican) Education Secretary Spellings as part of the inevitable progress toward one world government.

Why does SWNID (and, we believe, at least many of our Campbellite colleagues, none of whom made any of the remarks above) feel so alienated by these episodes? We expect that the answer is obvious: these comments reflect an extreme pessimism that ignores the past and the present in favor of grim prognostication. For Christians engaged in the cause of the gospel, there is nothing too good, it seems, that it can't go bad in an instant.

It's no coincidence, of course, that in these conversations, SWNID belongs to a minority of conversationalists who reject the tenets of dispensationalism, i.e. that the present "church age" is on the verge of yielding to a "tribulation" of untold awfulness for those who are, dare we say, "left behind" after the "rapture." There can be no question whatsoever that our colleagues are deeply rooted in the pessimism about the future that such a view necessarily engenders.

Of course, there's more than just dispensationalism at work in these judgments. There's also the legacy of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. In that century-old event, the shockwaves of which linger to the present, Christians who held to historic beliefs found themselves besieged by "modernists" who sought to take over institutions with dogmas shaped more by the contemporary insights of the nascent social and historical "sciences" (always more important than the natural sciences in these battles, we believe) than by Holy Writ. For many in institutions forged in those battles, the battle itself becomes the paradigm of all history: new movements are by definition suspect and are readily labeled with terms that properly refer to elements of those past battles. So, for example, "social gospel" is unchallenged as a term for those who say that the church must do well at doing good in order to win a hearing for the evangel.

SWNID, on the other hand, is ready to think other thoughts. We aren't dispensational. Neither, of course are we postmillennial, as JB in CA playfully accused us recently, thinking that things are inexorably marching toward a better future. We are amillennial. So we think that the world has been a pretty awful place for a long time and will remain so until the return of Jesus, the time of which we faithfully refuse to prognosticate. But we also think, with all the strength that our fallen but redeemed spirit can muster, that God's victory is powerfully at work in the world and that we, unworthy as we are, are blessed to participate in it.

We also tend to think that the fundamentalist-modernist controversy is not the model of all church history, any more than the present conflict between the broad tents of "conservatives" (fiscal, military, social and libertarian) and "liberals" (including socialists, populists, pacifists, and organized labor) defines every era of politics. We don't think that every new movement that "emerges" should be denounced until further notice, not least because the present shows that even the fundamentalist-modernist controversy yielded an overall victory for the orthodox side. So we are unlikely to think that someone who recommends a revision of present practices isn't by definition a wolf in sheep's clothing. We believe that when such folk speak, we have a responsibility to listen, think, and act on the best judgment that we can, informed by everything available to us but free of the suspicion that assumes monsters under the bed because you can never be too careful.

Call that outcome Christian critical, realistic, historically orthodox optimism. We think that too many Christians operate from a standpoint of fear. We keep trying to fear not.

These days, we think that this matter is what separates us from many of our non-Campbellite Bible college colleagues more than the classically definitive questions of getting in and staying in, i.e. predestination, baptism and security.

So we remain committed not to pander to or provoke the fears of our brothers and sisters. Instead, let's try to do stuff in the name of Jesus, figuring that he wins because he won already.


Matt Coulter said...

Agreed. Your statements signify that your particular institution is focused on a mission established directly from Christ rather than man. That makes the mission goals and needs similar to that of the Church. Well then, by ironclad prophecy (Holy Scripture), we know that Christ will never win a popularity contest. Therefore the messure of success for this institution will be perseverence, not numerical and financial growth... not even the Church has the promise of earthly gain.

But of course you already know these things. I type just to complete a thought you have triggered with me here.

Justin said...

wow, after reading that...i just kinda feel bad for you and the company your esteemed position requires you to keep. there are always job op's in admissions if you are looking for a career change. ha ha....not funny?

Anonymous said...

Gloom and doom is the norm. What we have in this country is abnormal. We should expect persecution, not fret about it. When we don't have it (and for the most part we don't), we should thank God, not thank ourselves for vigilantly standing for the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution.

Jesus warned us that persecution would be near universal. Paul experienced near universal persecution. The only time there isn't persecution is when the popular culture adopts a watered down version of the faith, like in the Holy Roman Empire or in the US.