What is the meaning of Reformed theological education for the life of the Presbyterian Church in these days of extreme diversity and conflict?”
These days, pastors and faithful disciples in the pews are wondering if the Presbyterian Church can hold together amidst all the tossing and turning. Some wonder why we don’t just call a meeting, hire a good lawyer, get a divorce, split up the property, and move on. Seminary students wonder if there will be a church to serve after they graduate. We know it wouldn’t be the first time the Church has divided, though concord after these divisions has lasted for only a short time. And we know from our constitution that Visible oneness, by which a diversity of persons, gifts, and understandings is brought together, is an important sign of the unity of God’s people. It is also a means by which that unity is achieved. (Book of Order, G-4.0203).
In these days of extreme diversity and conflict, as we seek the peace, unity, and purity of the church, it seems as if we are walking a tight wire. The question becomes, “How shall we maintain our balance?” That’s a question for Reformed theological education.
Of course, balance all depends on where one stands:
“¢ Students, seeking to balance study with service and spiritual development, ask us to balance financial aid, facility needs, and salaries for faculty and staff.
“¢ Alumnae and alumni ask us to balance degree programs with lifelong learning opportunities and to balance residential learning with distance education.
“¢ Faculty members strive to balance racial and cultural diversity, to balance our focus on Reformed Theology with emergent theologies in the two-thirds world.
“¢ Board members commit our institution to balance liberal/progressive and conservative/evangelical voices, to balance service to regional congregations with denominational needs, and to balance the faculty with scholars who also have experience in pastoral ministry.
“¢ Executive Presbyters ask for balance in our M.Div. curriculum so that we prepare pastors for small churches as well as for urban ministry and to balance the resources we use in the preparation of pastors with the resources used to stimulate theological conversation for the whole church. Faithful disciples of Jesus Christ sit in a pew Sunday after Sunday and pray we will balance a solid basic theological education with creative ways of preparing leaders for the new breezes of God’s Spirit.
After five years at Columbia Seminary, I am beginning to understand balance differently. I am remembering what I learned as a young tight-wire walker–cranking the tension taut and learning the thrill of walking on that wire. This memory gives me encouragement for Reformed theological education in these days when we are called to walk on the tension created by extreme diversity and conflict.
I learned to walk a tight wire by using a heavy wooden pole that extended far beyond the span of my own body, steadying me so that I could walk forward. Holding that balancing pole in both hands, I learned to kneel on the wire and to lie down, even to ride a bicycle and sit on the wire in a chair. The pole afforded me a way to make minute adjustments and keep my balance. Only after much practice could I set the pole down and walk the tense wire, even then stretching out my arms as far as they would go and extending one leg in order not to lose my balance and fall.
I had to learn to maintain my focus on a steady point that was straight ahead. If I looked at my feet, I fell. But if I kept my eyes focused on a point far out in front, if I used a balancing pole, and if I kept some flexibility in my stance, I could walk a tight wire. Oh, there were many falls. I had to get up and try over and over again. But what a thrill it was to walk along the tension of that wire!
As we figuratively walk a tight wire through these tense days, we who are the Body of Christ need to hold a long pole that extends out well beyond our personal reach to give us balance for walking forward. To walk on this tension, the weight at the ends of the pole must be taken seriously. Truth does not belong to or reside in any one part of the Church. Good, intelligent, faithful disciples of Jesus Christ come from different historical and local traditions and interpret Scripture differently. Therefore, we must listen to one another, really listen–not with the goal to win the argument but with the intent to learn from one another what Christ’s mission is. Without thoughtful engagement in the ministry of those who are so different from ourselves, we are apt to become proud and pretentious, cutting ourselves off from the work of God’s grace. We must hold onto our differences, seeing our diversity as God’s gift to us–a guard against self-righteousness. In these days of extreme diversity, the Body of Christ will need to hold a balancing pole, extending far beyond our personal reach in order to faithfully walk into the kingdom of God.
As we walk this tight wire, we need to stay focused on that steady point ahead of us, Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2). If we focus on our own feet, on what we have stood upon all of our lives, we will falter. But if we keep our eyes focused on Jesus Christ, the church will be flexible enough to keep our balance that we might run with perseverance the race that is set before us (Heb. 12:1) even in the midst of the tensions of our day. There will be falls, but we must not give up. Losing our balance and falling gives us humility and puts us on our knees in prayer, an excellent stance for keeping our balance in theological education in these days of extreme diversity and conflict.
And, so we pray:
in Jesus Christ you called disciples
and, by the Holy Spirit, made them
one church to serve you.
Help us to welcome new things you
are doing in the world,
and to respect old things you keep
Save us from senseless controversy.
Do not let us tear away from one an-
through division or hard argument.
Let us never be so sure of ourselves
that we condemn the faith of others
or refuse reunion with them,
but make us ever ready to reach out
for more truth.
Help us to determine what is good
for us and for all people.
Give strength to those who are
for the purity of obedience which
Heal the divisions separating your
children one from another,
that they might make fast, with
bonds of peace,
the unity which the Spirit gives
so that your church may be joined in
love and service to Jesus Christ,
the head of the Church
the one in whose name we pray.
(from the Book of Common Worship)
Laura S. Mendenhall is President of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. Prior to being called as the first female president of Columbia Seminary in 2000, Dr. Mendenhall was pastor of various congregations in Texas, including being senior pastor of the Westminster Church in Austin.