How Theological Education Forms People For Ministry - A Palestinian Christian Perspective
I had the privilege of taking part in the first Global Forum of Theological Educators, which took place in May 16-20, 2016 at Dorfweil, Germany. We were 86 theological educators, and for the first time, key theological educators from the six major church confessional families—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal and Independent churches—came together in one united forum in order to learn from each other and to share about the current situation of theological education on a global scale.
I gave a talk on how theological education should form people for ministry. Here is the text of my talk.
How Does Theological Education Form People For Ministry: A Palestinian Christian Perspective
I consider it a privilege to be with you and to share with you in this gathering. This presentation is mainly based on my experience as a Bible scholar and as the Academic dean of Bethlehem Bible College. I will also speak as a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem - a Middle Eastern, Arab, Palestinian Christian.
The question we have is: “How should theological education form people for ministry?” To answer this question I will suggest four points. Theological education in the 21st century should be (1) relevant, (2) unifying, (3) missional and (4) global.
Being located in Bethlehem is a privilege. It is the place of the incarnation, where God became one of us. Today we continue the long heritage of Christianity in the land of Christ. If you have not visited before then you should!
Yet living in Palestine does not come without its challenges. I am 37 years old, and I have already witnessed so many wars and uprisings that it will take me the whole 12 minutes just to recite them. Today our students have sometimes to fight tear gas canisters just to arrive to our campus. And it was on one of those days that it hit me: Are we preparing leaders to relate to and make sense of what is happening in the streets outside our classroom walls? We aspire to be experts in interpreting the biblical text and the context of biblical times, but what about interpreting the context we live in?
For those students struggling just to make it to the class, imagine them arriving to the class only to have a class on the documentary hypothesis or on the difference between infralapsarianism, sublapsarianism, and supralapsarianism? (These are things I studied about in seminary in USA!) My colleague pastor in Bethlehem Rev. Mitri Raheb always jokes that after he came back from Germany with a PhD in theology he had all the right answers, but he had the wrong questions!
Are we relevant? Today I believe every seminary should have courses about interpreting the context, both locally and globally. We need to biblically tackle issues like poverty, religious extremism, peacemaking, the gap between rich and poor… etc. We need to talk about identity and nationality. We need to do social and political analysis from a Christian worldview. In Bethlehem Bible College today we speak about the need of bringing Christ in dialogue with the Checkpoint.
Now, I am not talking about teaching these issues in a separate elective course (and bring the “lefty” professor in the seminary to teach them just to quite him/her)! These themes should be part of the class on Matthews, or the Pauline letters, or the Pentateuch, that is if we even want to stick to the classical way of structuring our curriculum. Let us reflect on this.
My second point is that theological education should be unifying; it should take the ecumenical dimension very seriously. I will again bring an example from my personal experience. Two years ago I taught one of the most memorable classes in my teaching career: The Pentateuch. What made it memorable of course was not the content, but the students, and in particular their diversity. There were: Evangelicals, Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Catholics, and even a student from a Muslim background, and then of course a Lutheran teacher.
Having this diverse group is a reason to celebrate, but also to lament. I think of the history of divisions in the Holy Land. Today we are a small community, and a divided one. We carry on us the scars and wounds of centuries of church conflict. With the challenges facing Christians in the Middle East increasing by the day, the options facing us are simple: unite and work together, or perish!
Jesus prayed in John 17 that we will be one, emphasising that our unity will be a sign to the world that the Father has sent the Son. I can never forget, however, what Dr. Manfred Kohl once said to me, and I am paraphrasing here: “Jesus commanded us to be one, but we build seminaries to teach that we are actually not one!”
Today more than ever, unity is no longer a luxury. It is a demand for the survival of the church. The church is losing its credibility among young people because of this issue. Here is my point: It begins in the seminary! Consider for a moment our Church history classes, or the Systematic Theology classes. Can we teach about church conflicts in history with humility? Can we teach the diversity in theological views in a respectful and thoughtful way? I strong recommend to you as an example of this a document recently prepared by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation called From Conflict to Communion. It talks about the conflict between the two churches and the disagreements in theology in a very respectable and Christ-honouring way, and how the two communities are now on the road to communion again! It can be done!
This semester I am teaching a course on worship and liturgy. Again, I have students from different background, and we are enjoying learning the liturgy of the different church families in our land. It is really an amazing class, as every student shares about worship from her/his own church family. Our diversity has become a reason to celebrate.
Third, theological education should be missional. We have a message to the world. Today more than ever this message is crucial and desperately needed. It is the message of the cross. It is the message of grace; the unmerited love of God. We have a message and forgiveness and mercy. We have a message that loving God and loving neighbour are an expression of one another. We have a radical message with radical implications about loving the enemy. The Middle East and indeed the world need to hear this message and need to see it embodied in us.
Yet here is the challenge: How do we witness about Jesus, the crucified Son of God and the way to God, in a context on extremism and fundamentalism? How do we make exclusive claims about Jesus while being humble and at the same time open to God’s mercy and mysterious ways? I believe that naive universalism where “anything goes” is not the answer! Mission has to begin with the conviction that in Jesus and the cross we have answers, specially when it comes to reconciliation with God and fellow man.
To do so we must look to people of other faiths as neighbours. So many times we emphasise the great commission, yet we forget the great commandment of love to neighbour. As such it begins with our message to our own people, and how we define mission in our theological education. It has to do with how we relate to people of other faiths. For example, do we dismiss and dehumanise peoples, faiths, and whole civilisations in our apologetics?
Mission should not about converting the other where is the other is a “project”: but as witnessing, loving, sacrificial serving, and even advocating. It is about loving relationships. Let us plant the seed of this love in our students. And it begins with how we talk about “the other”.
How do we relate in our seminaries with the communities around us? In Bethlehem we live among a majority of Muslims, and so what is our message to them? How do they see us? Do we really know them? In our extension in Nazareth we live among a majority of Jews and the same questions apply. Are we, through our theological education, wall builders, or bridge builders?
In theological education in the Middle East today we are talking about integrating Islam into our curriculum and relate the Bible to the context of Islam. This is not about giving a course on Islam. Rather, for example, when we talk about the figure of Abraham, or the doctrine of the trinity, we should do so in dialogue with Islamic teachings about these things. It does not make sense to me that we talk in our seminaries today about different beliefs about the divinity of Jesus in the 4th and 5th century, yet have no idea what 2 billion Muslims believe about this today! We study Abraham in his ANE perspective, yet not how he is perceived in the Quran!
4- Global Theology
My fourth and final point is that theological education should be global. I thought about calling it “theology from the margins”; theology that gives voice to the global south perspective and challenges the monopoly of the West on theology. Some call it “post-colonial theology”. You see for many, when we from the south write theology, it is contextual theology, but if Bob Smith writes it, or Carl Schmidt, it is proper theology. We need to challenge this notion.
Another story to illustrate. As academic dean in Bethlehem, I always receive emails from people who offer to come and teach in our college - basically wanting to come and “educate us”, assuming that we do not have people who know theology or the Bible. I must admit that these emails are beginning to make me angry. In particular there was this email I received from someone who works in an organisation in Canada that speaks about the persecution of Christians, and he was taking a sabbatical, and offered to spend it in our college and teach us a course on how to respond to persecution! I could not believe it! A Canadian in a sabbatical offering to teach Palestinians on persecution. I responded politely by inviting him to come and learn from us about persecution!
In this season of Pentecost, we need to listen to the Spirit, and acknowledge the shift that is taking place in Christianity today, a shift towards the global south. It is a good shift. It is not a historical coincidence. I believe it is the work of Spirit.
I long therefore for the day where the theological books we read in our seminaries come from Latin America, Asia or Africa. This is no longer the future of Christianity, but the present. These voices should play a key role in shaping the way we think about God and the way we interpret Scripture, and how we respond to the challenges facing our world today. This is not simply an “interesting cool” perspective or reading of Scripture. And for those of us from the global south, are we too dependant on the north? Do we have to reference Smith or Schmidt to be legit?
Relevant, unifying, missional and global! This is my simple contribution for this gathering as to how theological education should form people for ministry today. God bless you!