Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Finding a Place

In the past, I have attempted to define some of the essential characteristics of what it is to be an evangelical. In his blog, Scot McKnight has recently been asking the question of whether the name "evangelical" is worth saving, given its current identification among the masses with right-wing politics. To look at most of the comments, it seems clear that many people think that it's not.

While I do find that to be a pity, I can certainly understand. While going through my archives recently to label as many of my old posts as I could find a coherent category for, I noticed that the majority of my own posts on "Evangelicalism" tended to be negative comments on the church, rather than positive ones. Perhaps those who think that it isn't worth the effort required to rehabilitate the label "evangelical" are right....

There was another aspect of the comments that caught my eye. There is a general trend away from particular denominational identity these days, in favor of multi-denominational labels such as "emerging" (of course, "evangelical" itself is a multi-denominational label). While I am sympathetic to that trend, and have been for many years, I wonder how this might be workable for the leadership of the church. Most pastors or priests must be ordained according to the rules and regulations of a particular denomination.

This isn't just idle speculation for me, but is very personal. I'm a member of the PC(USA), and started seminary a decade ago with the intention of studying for ordination within that denomination. The PC(USA) has a lengthy process of discernment and a considerable number of examinations that must be completed in order to be ordained. I have passed all of my examinations except for one: "Theological Competence." I have taken this examination five times, the last time being an oral examination conducted by one of the theology professors at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. For the four written examinations, I consistently scored exactly as high as it is possible to score without passing, with the consistent response that I understood the broad strokes of reformed theology very well, but that they wanted more specifics (i.e., which theologian articulated a particular doctrine). My oral examiner gave a similar response. He could tell that I was "thinking theologically," but he wanted me to give more specific detail. I was encouraged to retake a course in reformed theology, and take the test again at a later time.

That was nearly six years ago. I actually do still hope to retake such a course someday, but at about the same time as my last examination, I started working full-time, and the only time such a course is offered here at Fuller is during the summer as a two-week intensive. Besides being unwilling to take such a large block of time off all at once (thereby forfeiting vacation income that I'll be paid when I leave if I don't take it as vacation), I do not believe that an intensive course is the best solution for me pedagogically. The information certainly didn't "stick" with me after I took the intensive the first time.

But there is another reason I've been hesitant to re-enter the ordination process with the PC(USA). The fact is, I don't have that strong a need to be Presbyterian. It's the tradition I'm most familiar with, and I'll always have an affinity for it. But I'm simply not convinced of the superiority of certain Presbyterian doctrines, over and above other Christian interpretations. I'm an Evangelical (hopefully in the "good sense" that McKnight talks about). I do care more about the "broad strokes" of Christian theology (with perhaps a reformed slant, which my past theological examinations said that I was good at) than I do about the particulars (especially in regard to the particular people that articulated such particular doctrines), and I'm concerned that such particulars do more to divide Christians than they help us to live as God would have us live.

I wouldn't be at all averse to being ordained in a non-denominational church. Unfortunately, my limited experience so far with non-denominational churches is that they tend to be "evangelical" in the wrong sense of the word, and I don't know if I would be a good "fit" for such a congregation as a pastor.

There's also the possibility of joining another denomination, but most of those have their own lengthy discernment processes and educational requirements (beyond simply having an MDiv, which I do possess), and I'd have to start at ground zero. I'm not getting any younger, and I don't really have the luxury of going back to school full-time, as I need to continue to earn an living while going through such a process. That's a bit daunting.

I'm a bit concerned that I'm "spinning my wheels," and that I need to make a decision sooner rather than later. But I haven't been totally idle. While working here at Fuller, I continue to learn (if not in classes anymore) from many fine evangelical (good sense) scholars, and I'm making a lot of connections that will no doubt help me wherever I go. But as valuable as this experience is, I don't intend to work in academic administration forever. I have long felt the call to do ministry in a local congregation. I'm still not sure where I'll end up, or where I'll even "fit" given my peculiar position somewhere between "mainstream liberal" and "right-wing conservative." For those of you who believe in such things, I'd appreciate your prayers.

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