Scratchpad: What are you going to do with the degree?

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Most of you are either training for pastorates or working in pastorates already. Gaining a master’s degree and serving as a pastor often leads to an expectation in the congregation of one’s expertise in the Bible. Write two or three sentences describing your pastoral work or the work you anticipate. Then discuss the potential pitfalls and blessings that may come from your ‘expert’ status in reading the text ‘for’ others.

It is rather difficult to write something like this without coming off sounding like a know-it all or some high and mighty person who has the problems of the world (‘s Christians solved). But, alas, I’ve tried.

Sometimes, I think that I am simply going to Seminary to have something to blog about… or to be a better blogger… or, just to annoy a certain militant atheist who thinks that one cannot have a valid opinion unless they go to seminary.


It is actually a turnabout for me being in the United Methodist Church and comparing the reception of scholarship with my former congregation’s demonization of higher learning, although admittedly, I am in an urban (as much as the city of Charleston can actually be called urban) congregation, which is well established and filled with affluent people. In speaking with current pastors whose charges include older, more conservative congregations, the openness to scholarship isn’t always available. Even in the larger congregations, some are still put off by contradictions to their understanding or to their own intellectual traditions. Still yet, college is assumed, as is some understanding of the original languages. In comparison, my former congregations railed at the idea of me attending college, and assuredly as already consigned me to the fiery pits of hell for attending Seminary. For them, the original languages were a corruption upon God’s Word as was any interpretation using context, or heaven forbid, science.

While I am not yet comfortable enough to identify my place in the current congregation (in the former, I was a minister but my position later degenerated into the spoil of the pastor), my hope is that I can one day become a voice of hope, especially in reaching out to those abandoned or excommunicated by cults and other sects for their own independent thinking. Further, I would rather relish the role in reaching out to extreme fundamentalists in drawing them out of what I see as the dark spot of Christianity. Can it be done through writing as well as preaching? I have no real interest in the latter, but in the former, I know the power of the written word, in which it must be grappled with, leaving only the facts and rarely answers back. I want no particular role in a congregation, or denomination, but within the whole of Christendom, I have no problem being a voice which if someone finds, can help those who are struggling along, finding their way in Christianity without the sure foundation of a black and white world.

Granted, to those who hold to such things as King James Onlyism, I may not be able to help, although my target here would be to help them more fully understand what is actually being said in Psalm 12.6-7, the history of not just the English bible, but the Scriptures themselves. Further, I would tackle the legalism brought not fully reading 1st Corinthians 11, among other verses, allowing context to complete our own understanding of Scripture. But, most of all, I would like to see people grapple with doubt, and not in the least, doubt in themselves that their interpretation is not as inspired as Scripture, and they aren’t the only ones to have held Scripture in their hands since the time of the Apostles. In end, it would be my goal to help those who are going through epochal changes in their faith not simply maintain their faith, escaping militant atheism, but truly growing their faith.

Surely, there are blessings and pitfalls when you can reach out to a wayward soul and help them again find a footing with Christ. Indeed, in some ways, helping others out of darkness brings light to my soul even now. There is too much beauty in God’s World to be hid by the black and white word, and if I am able to in some small part, if someone finds my writings, to shine the light, then that will be blessing enough. I have no high expectations of bringing light to all of those who have long dwelled in darkness, but just to see a few escape blinding, sectarian-based, literalism for actually understanding Scripture, and further believing that even the most mysterious of books (Revelation) can be and should be understood would strangely warm my heart. The pitfalls, however, generally place me in the firing line, so to speak. Already, I am an outcast from the group which I grew up with. They no longer ‘spiritual mothers and fathers’, ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, family, but now, they are the ones praying that I will turn from my wicked ways and seek God’s face instead of ‘man’s knowledge.’ How do you successfully help someone step away from what many might call a cult with their sanity and emotions intact while not becoming their enemy? While it is possible, it also creates a very small space in which to operate. Further, how far do you go, or perhaps how fast, when bringing to light scholarship and the intellectual criticism of the Scriptures to those who simply haven’t yet learned what canonical interpretation is? The pitfalls are the creation of an angry populace who see you as the destroyer of their faith.

As a post-scripture – Actually, I’m not too sure I want to do any of that. I do want to teach, though, and not even sure I want to be paid to do so. Just saying….

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3 Replies to “Scratchpad: What are you going to do with the degree?”

  1. i have only one reason to encourage people to seminary if they wish to serve the church: ‘study to show yourself an approved worker for God, rightly exegeting the word of truth…’ if that isnt sufficient reason i dont know what is.

  2. As I’ve just commented elsewhere, this for me is a matter of truth and integrity. I did the training I did as a response to the call to preach which was inherent in my conversion experience. I had a year at an evangelical Bible College, as part of my training as a Methodist local preacher, then ordination training including an academic BA in theology, and have never stopped reading, digging, exploring – the last few years, I did a part-time research MTh, and will see what other doors open.

    In terms of ministry, for me the whole thing has made me much more secure in reading the biblical texts in their historical contexts. In preaching, it starts out by being able to introduce biblical passages with a sentence or two of context – nothing heavy, just a bit of scene-setting, which has illuminated the text for the congregation. In Bible study groups, I’ve been able to unpack and tell the story – and show how such study doesn’t destroy the faith, but illuminates it. I’ve also found that the kind of questions and conversations I’ve had with guys in the pub have been much more interesting, and most non-church people are actually a lot more open if they think you’re thinking for yourself and not just selling the party line.

    As far as rabid fundies are concerned – the only ones you’ll help are those who want to be helped. Those who are convinced theology is from Hell will stay at a distance. If they’re telling you they’ll pray for you, say what I’ve aid to my more conservative friends “Great! I’ll take all the prayer I can get!” The bottom line, and the best witness you will have, is your own Christian integrity. I remember reading of a conservative guy who went to hear his more academic friend preach, and afterwards said “Wow! How can you, with an SCM theology like yours, preach an IVP sermon like that!?” (You need to recognise the publishing houses for that one to work…) If folk see you walking closely with your Lord, with an active spirituality, that will be the best testimony to the fact that critical scholarship is not anti-Christian, and that faith doesn’t mean switching off the God-given brain!

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