By Terry Maples
I grew up in the Deep South in the 1960s and ‘70s. Neither of my parents received a high school diploma, which was not uncommon in our rural context. For many, this insular setting seemed to foster suspicion of formal education.
Based on my observations, I think people’s fear of education was linked to the conviction that education exposes students to radical ideas that might encourage them to turn away from inherited values, God and the church.
Entering seminary I knew little about formal theological education and was nervous about how my beliefs and perspective might be challenged. The education I received at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1980 to 1983 was transformational. The experience did challenge and change me, but isn’t that what good education is supposed to do?
The faith I inherited from my family gave me a firm foundation, but it yearned to be stretched by professors, gifted authors and other students. My assumptions about God, faith and the world needed to be examined. I emerged with stronger and more mature faith, an ecumenical spirit and with conviction that certitude is the opposite of faith.
In many ways the world continues to fear education, especially faith education. Here are some tests to determine whether fear of educating for faith is “in the driver’s seat” in your congregation.
Does your congregation fear God will call it to leave the comfort of what it assumes regarding faith and practice? Folks often contentedly repeat patterns while ignoring a new direction of God’s Spirit. Without education, a congregation won’t recognize its need for continual renewal. The gospel is about transformation and change. Shouldn’t every individual and congregation seeking deeper connection to God view change as the norm and welcome it?
Does your congregation believe it must compete with other churches and denominations for members? This competitive attitude reveals fear regarding sustaining the institution and declining membership. Authentic faith sharing is essential, but a myopic focus on numbers can unwittingly lead to preaching and teaching against what God is doing in the world through other believers.
We must see the good God is doing in and through other churches and denominations. Without respect for others, we run the risk of trying to “build our own kingdom” and miss out on opportunities for collaboration with other believers. Education reminds us to focus on what we share in common and celebrate each part’s contribution to God’s Kingdom work.
Does your congregation fear prophetic preaching and teaching? This does not mean we posit all authority in the pastoral office, but God must be free to challenge our beliefs and interpretations, cultural and congregational expectations, practices and ethics. If congregation members attempt to dictate what pastors can or cannot preach, how can these God-called leaders courageously speak truth into their contexts?
Does your congregation fear questioning social structures that oppress and exclude? Without education, we can convince ourselves Scripture justifies all kinds of sin — slavery, racism, hating what we don’t understand, believing different is “bad,” etc. Discipleship demands we follow Jesus’ example and advocate for those who struggle and have no voice. Clearly, God loves all equally. We must not allow cultural norms and biases to undermine that truth. Learning to love what God loves is the litmus test.
Does your congregation fear in-depth conversation about complex, theologically important matters? Perhaps fear of disagreement is a natural by-product of the incivility prevalent in our culture of late. We shy away from healthy, sometimes controversial, conversations to our detriment. Education and experience help us see conflict as a path to greater understanding, intimacy, and community. If we are not open to respectful, substantive dialogue, how can we together rightly discern God’s direction?
Do your congregational members fear hearing something at church they believe incongruent with their political perspective? Sound congregational education is needed to keep members from being co-opted by political ideologies that insist cultural politics drive theology and interpretation of Scripture instead of the other way around.
Do your members fear exposure to new ideas found in books? I believe God uses great and godly authors to challenge our predetermined ideas, understandings and assumptions. I intentionally read authors who stretch me and push me to wrestle with hard questions. Reading books that always reinforce my current thoughts and practice won’t get the job done. Good books force me to reflect and encourage me to live an examined life.
Does your congregation still fear women in leadership? To what degree have we weakened what God can do in the world because of cultural conditioning and biblical interpretation insisting women’s roles must be limited? Sound theological education and reflection prove to us God is no respecter of persons and calls everyone — regardless of race, creed or gender.
Fearing education results in self-imposed limits and prevents us from experiencing the wideness of God’s mercy and power. Isn’t it time to reject the myth that education is suspect? Education is foundational and absolutely necessary in transforming our hearts and minds (Romans 12:1-2).