The last fifty years have been marked by institutional decline, both within the church and in society more broadly. Seminaries—designed to serve Christ’s church and to raise up ministers for her—have not been immune. Often, they have been among the most notorious examples of decline. The effects of this can be devastating, resulting in generations of ministers badly taught and poorly formed. The worst could be yet to come. One friend of mine recently remarked that, when it came to the changing moral norms being pushed by the LGBTQ+ lobby and its allies, he had no confidence in any seminary that had not already publicly declared itself and taken a side.
This might lead to a sense of despair about our seminaries. So many have fallen; can any be trusted? At the very least, it should lead to the question I am asked most frequently in my work: How can institutional faithfulness be maintained? How does a seminary avoid theological and moral decline?
There is no single answer to this question. The roots of decline are spiritual. The effects of human sin run deep within us. These are compounded by the pressure from the outside to conform or to at least remain silent as truth is assaulted. The enemies of Christ’s church can afford to play the long game and apply pressure from all directions with mutually contradicting arguments and stands. Sustained pressure is hard to resist, and in the service of survival, it is always easiest to rationalize silence and conformity, to drift, often in initially imperceptible ways.
Ultimately, both personal and institutional fidelity are gifts from God. Just as it is in God that we “live and move and have our being,” so it is by God’s grace that we stand and remain faithful. We must begin with this. We are contingent beings, dependent for our existence and looking to God for strength.
Yet more can be said. The witness of history reminds us that no institution is immune to unfaithfulness. While the church of Jesus Christ cannot be destroyed, the institutions serving her often are. This basic axiom of Scripture, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12), ought to be at the forefront of our institutional minds. None of us is beyond temptation. None of our institutions is too big or too important to fail. There is an institutional hubris that sets in often just at the same time as decline. Infidelities are overlooked; compromise is accepted for the sake of the cause. Humility about our institutional standing is essential to faithfulness in carrying out our institutional mission.
This kind of humility must lead to a commitment to godly sincerity. This was one of the hallmarks of the ministry of the apostle Paul. He contrasts his preaching with that of many others, writing, “For we are not, like so many, peddlars of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:17).
The questions that arise from Paul’s example are as obvious as they are piercing: What would you agree to stay silent on for the right amount of money? What truths would you soften in the name of relevance and mission? Why have we avoided taking a stand on important issues of biblical fidelity that others fight for? What is stated in our promotional literature but contradicted in the classroom? What is being taught that donors and supporting churches must never know?
Being men of sincerity requires us to be transparent about our convictions. In our presbyterian context, each of the trustees, along with every member of the faculty, annually signs a public testimony indicating adherence to the Westminster Standards without exception. These are the doctrinal standards of the churches we serve. We should welcome the accountability that comes from ecclesiastical supervision and from the oversight of our community of donors and alumni. Questions must be answered with clarity; statements of faith should be stated plainly and followed closely. There should be no hint of the bait and switch, of the public face and the private reality. Seminaries exist to serve the church, and they serve the church in the sight of God.
Which brings us to prayer. The nineteenth-century Scottish minister Robert Murray M’Cheyne once said, “A man is what he is on his knees before God, and nothing more.” Approaching God has a way of exposing us. It is in prayer—as we intercede for our seminaries and ourselves—that we must see the intersection of humility and transparency. We are aware of our need and cry out for grace, and we simultaneously are exposed before the one who knows what we need before we ask.
While the historic failures of our ecclesiastical institutions loom large, there are other examples from history that loom larger still: Moses interceding on behalf of those who had gone astray; Hezekiah laying out his complaint before Yahweh when surrounded by the Assyrian army; Paul praying with tears on behalf of the church; Athanasius against the world. If nothing else, these remind us that “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16). The apostle Paul bolsters us in this way: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us” (2 Thess. 2:15).
Standing firm has a cost. We should expect increasing marginalization. There will come a time when we ask ourselves whether we really want institutional fidelity after all. It will always seem easier to leave the battles to the next generation. Everyone, from the trustees to the staff, needs to recognize this. But the ministers we train today are the ones who will be on the front lines tomorrow. The humility about our position, the recognition of God’s grace, and the prayer that characterizes our work is not only what is required for the time at hand, but for the coming years of struggle.
Jonathan L. Master is president of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
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