People are talking theology all the time without really knowing that is what they are doing. Every time they reflect on human identity, a particular view of God, the world, or Richard Foster’s un-Quakeresque trilogy – money, sex and power – there is an implicit theological perspective in play.
It is not only seminary students wrestling with questions into the night who are “talking theology.”
Recently I got to do one of my favorite things – convene a theological conversation in a congregational setting. In this case, it was with adult Sunday school participants at Smoke Rise Baptist, a vibrant church in the suburbs of Atlanta. There’s something wonderful about demystifying some of the “verities” alongside thoughtful students of the Bible who are eager learners about how what we believe shapes our lives. We talked about how our embedded theology must give way to deliberative theology as our beliefs collide with new experiential realities. When an issue begins to wear a face, unexamined assumptions shift.
“I wished I had taught students more about how beloved they are by God.”
Colin Harris, retired professor of religious studies at Mercer University, opened his Sunday school class so that the two of us might have a freewheeling conversation about things of importance. He then invited class members into a larger engagement of ideas and practices that puzzle and challenge us. It was a lively time, and we had to end much too soon.
He and I began by reflecting on what we wish we had taught students more of in our early years of teaching. I suggested that I wished I had taught students more about how beloved they are by God, especially as many came to seminary battered by the judgmentalism of their churches or the dysfunction of some of their homes. Most of us carry shaming ideas that we “are not enough” and that God is there to remind us of that.
I also suggested that human agency is the primary means of God’s work in the world, so just as we count on God, God is counting on us. This grants significant dignity to our sense of vocation.
Dr. Harris wisely suggested that if we think of human participation in this way, it reconfigures our understanding of God. I agreed, observing that the “omni-attributes” which accord all power, knowledge and presence to the divine have to be qualified by God’s choice to be in relationship with us, even as God dwells in the eternal flow of trinitarian relations. To be in relationship means that God does not hold all the power, determine all the knowledge, or even coerce how we experience divine presence. God invites our participation, indeed, that of the whole community.
One of the interesting exchanges with a member of the class had to do with the kind of hierarchy he perceived between ordained and non-ordained. The questioner wondered why one has to be an ordained deacon to serve communion and why only ordained ministers could baptize.
I responded that there is no theological reason for this, only traditional Baptist conventions in discrete churches. Actually, a church may authorize whom it chooses to perform these ministry functions, giving demonstrable reality to the statement that “every member is a minister.”
So why do we ordain?
“Human agency is the primary means of God’s work in the world, so just as we count on God, God is counting on us.”
The tradition of ordaining deacons and ministers arises out of the conviction that “setting apart” leaders for particular functions strengthens a congregation. A deacon demonstrates what mature discipleship looks like, and the ministry she or he provides multiplies the church’s impact.
Ordaining ministers is a recognition not only of gifts for pastoral leadership, but also acknowledging that formal theological education equips them to be reliable guides as they proclaim, administer the sacraments and shepherd their flocks. Ordination does not require hierarchy; rather, it places the ordained in the posture of servant, which is thoroughly Christological.
Another question had to do with what really distinguishes Christian theology from humanism. In the desire not to be tethered to dogma, have we let go of essential concepts?
Christian theology would be unrecognizable without the earliest kerygma that proclaimed: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” Actually, dogma or doctrine does not have to be a deadly, cerebral concept that demands compliance; rather, it is what the church must teach now in order to be the church, in the words of Baptist theologian James McLendon Jr.
Another fruitful aspect of our conversation was our thinking about how a church enacts the Body of Christ as it mobilizes spiritual gifts in service to a larger vision of justice. Smoke Rise, for example, cares about interfaith relations, significant investment in mission pursuits and refugee work. That is incarnational theology at its best.
The clinker question came from an impudent class member who asked Dr. Harris, “How did you manage to keep a job so long and our friend, Dr. Marshall, has a rather checkered career?” It was a one word answer: “Gender.”
Baptists continue to have this theological conversation, also, for which I am grateful.