Years ago Harold Lindsell, in his famous treatise The Battle for the Bible, traced the tendency of Christian institutions to drift from their founding principles. Whether or not one agrees with Lindsell’s notion of the key marker of the drift – biblical inerrancy – the point is well taken that Christian academies seem to inevitably drift from the intentions of the churches which founded them. James DeForest Murch, painting with a broader brush, pointed to “efficiency” or “feeble rivalry” with state institutions (rather than liberalism per se), as the more insidious problem. This seems to more accurately encompass the present tendency of schools associated with Christian Churches to re-brand themselves as universities, start a football team, and to declare a business major. Even the small institution I was recently associated with (call it Christian College or CC), fired its Registrar, Director of Christian Education, and Director of the Honors Program, as it hired a full time Athletic Director, and Women’s Basketball Coach/Weight Trainer. The school gutted its academic program as it installed a new basketball court and new weight training equipment for a diminishing student body increasingly interested in sports and business.
The financial need of Bible Colleges and seminaries often results in drastic attempts to gain students by shaping the education to their perceived needs and desires. It is not so much overt liberalism but a subversive pragmatism that is overtaking both the Church and Christian education. The resulting battle, as described by Mark Galli in Christianity Today, is not about the authority of the Bible but its use. The battle for the Bible is now, more than ever, a cultural battle in which the culture of the Church, and in Karl Barth’s description “the strange new world of the Bible,” are coopted and reduced to the culture and world of secular culture. Galli maintains that “even when we have the highest view of Scripture” the tendency is “to read it in sub-biblical ways” as a “self-help manual” or “justifying our latest mission venture.” It is no longer “the strange new world of the Bible” as the Bible is reduced to justifying utilitarian culture.
As theological education is increasingly shaped by a culture of pragmatism the Church is increasingly deemed irrelevant in providing answers or alternatives to the young. A 2011 Barna Survey entitled, “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church,” finds that the number one reason for the mass departure is that the young have “unprecedented access to ideas and worldviews.” Rather than engage these issues, the Church is perceived to be controlled by “stifling, fear-based and risk-averse” teaching. The number two reason the young are leaving is that their “experience of Christianity is shallow,” “boring,” and faith is not considered “relevant.” Some 20% say God is missing from their experience of Church. It is not surprising there is a mass exodus from Church as Christian leadership is given an increasingly shallow training in a shallow comprehension of Christianity. The old priest’s recommendation to his young charges entering puberty, “Play lots of basketball,” has been extended to Christian college education. The education is more of a distraction from the prevailing realities than a real engagement with the deep grammar of a Christian apprehension of reality.
Not only the discipleship model of Christ and the Apostles, but the earliest Christian seminary, present a different picture. Gregory (later known as “Thaumaturgus” meaning “wonder worker”) describes his reception by Origen, his teacher, as a life changing experience even from its inception. Gregory does not focus on Origen’s great scholarship or erudition. As James McClendon tells the story, “Instead, he tells how Origen in accepting Gregory and his brother as students first made friends with these young men – and did it as if it were a valuable achievement on Origen’s side to have such friends. Gregory felt himself a Jonathan embraced by this academic David (I Sam. 18:1; Panegyric vi).” The basic person-hood of the students was acknowledged in Christian love, and this love relationship became the basis for an embodied, holistic training in Christianity.
The pragmatic drift, as it overtakes the ethos of an institution, does not and, perhaps, cannot occur without displacing even a semblance of Origen’s model for training Christian leaders. An ethical vacuum results with the relinquishing of Christian ethics combined with the presumed Christian exemption from standard business professionalism. Peter Enns’ description of the atmosphere this creates seems to describe a universal pattern in which the Christian institution, exempt from the “impractical rigors” of Christian ethics and freed from many legal constraints due to its status as a church institution, becomes toxic. As CC drifted from its founding purpose older faculty were systematically terminated, so that during 7 years a dozen individuals over 50 years of age were terminated with presumed impunity. Administrators able to systematically destroy careers and lives in this manner pay the price with a degrading of their own humanity and it infects the ethos of the entire institution with a disregard for basic decency and value. I realized all ethical pretense had been dropped when I heard an administrator’s answer to a husband who, fearing for his wife’s safety due to years of verbal abuse, asked him not to be alone with her. His answer encapsulates the problem: “My interactions with an employee are a private matter between the employee and myself.” No ethic, Christian or secular, constrains his or the institution’s private abuse of power. There is little danger of Christian virtue being modeled by such a person in such an atmosphere. In the end, it seems doubtful that morally suspect leadership can produce effective Christian leadership as a kind of business.
In sharp contrast is Gregory’s description of his teacher, Origen, as one who had attained Christian virtue and who through his life-example was providing training in virtue. Origen seemed to follow the Pauline model in his call to his pupils to follow him as he followed Christ. Every encounter was aimed at precipitating a change so that the students would take on the image of the master. He “stimulated us by the deeds he did more than by the doctrines he taught” (Pan. ix). The Christian ethic he wanted to impart was one that he lived and this served as the foundation for training in Christianity and entry into the realms of philosophy and theology. The training that resulted involved continual dialogue as Origen probed into his student’s psyche: “penetrating into us more deeply, and probing what is most inward in us, he put us to the question, and made propositions to us in our replies” (Pan. vi). Gregory and his brother came to Origen as nominal Christians but the education transformed every aspect of their lives.
Would it be possible, once again, to provide in-depth transformative biblical and theological education and discipleship by returning to a biblical model of discipleship? Origen’s tutorial method and his one to one student relationship would seem to be a live possibility – partially made possible through technology. A group of us, who have concluded Christian Education has been demoralized, are forging an alternative paradigm for training in Christianity. It is an attempt to restore the essential role of discipleship, dialogue, the individual tutorial, and the grounding in humanity and love. Rooted in the community experience (life together) we are extending this web of relations as the center of Christian training and discipleship. Induction into an alternative world, the strange new world of the Bible, seems to be a possibility only where that world is already in place in the practice of Christian community. Should we not have the expectation, as with Origen and Christ before him, that the student will be converted, through training in Christianity, to a new way of life in an alternative world – that constituted by Christ?
Beginning in the second week of September go to forgingplougshares.org to learn of this alternative Christian training ground.
 See my previous blog “Escaping an Evil Christianity: Must Theological Education Go Underground?”
 Mark Galli, “A New Bible Battle: It’s not about doctrine but our use of Scripture,” Christianity Today (10/7/2011).
 I am following Peter Enns description of this on his website.
 James McClendon, Ethics (Nashville: Abingdon Press), 43.