So there I was, thinking I was destined for beautiful, historic Oxford, an ancient university with awe-inspiring libraries, the pictures of which have made me weep. But alas, it was not to be. I had to stay here, in Canada, where the oldest university was founded in 1663 not 1096. I didn’t really know what I was going to do now, I had been dreaming about and planning this year at Oxford for so long. I was going to become a vocational apologist, defending the coherence, integrity, beauty, and truthfulness of Christianity on university and college campuses. Now it seemed that was not what God had for me. I searched around online for something similar, but let’s be real…nothing is Oxford. I confess I sulked for a little bit, but really this ‘closed door’ allowed me to explore something else that had been stirring within me for a while, an interest in vocational pastoral ministry.
During my university years I was a member of a church in the Plymouth Brethren tradition and so we didn’t have pastors in the sense of full time, paid staff pastors who did the majority of the preaching and teaching and soul care. Our churches were governed by a plurality of elders who were all volunteer. They shared the pastoral responsibilities but also allowed other gifted men to do these things as well, so I had opportunity to preach and teach and lead ministries even as an unordained guy in his early twenties with no formal education or training. In some ways it was beautiful, I was given opportunities that most of my peers in other churches weren’t, however, I also look back with some regret at a lot of my early sermons…they were bad, just plain bad, some equipping for the task would have been a good thing. But what I did discover during those years was that I really liked teaching the Bible, and I really enjoyed impacting peoples’ lives with God’s truth and watching them make spiritual breakthroughs in their journey with Jesus. I was really alive in those moments and I found myself reading a lot about pastoral ministry. I was also becoming very convicted about the need for excellent teaching in our churches that applies God’s timeless words to our everyday lives so we can embody and live out the good news of Jesus in our present culture. I thought, maybe I’m destined for a life of preaching and pastoring, but as I said, there were no vocational pastors in the assemblies. We did have itinerant preachers who would travel around teaching at different churches, but that life never really appealed to me because I liked the idea of investing in a group of people for their maturing and flourishing, being a rooted pastor-teacher in one church or a small network of local churches. I didn’t really know how this would work in my tradition but was feeling increasingly like this was what God wanted me to do.
After a lot of prayer and discernment, I headed off to Tyndale Seminary in Toronto in 2009. I really did feel like I needed, for a time, to give myself to studying the Bible and theology. I wanted to go deep into the languages, customs, and culture of the Bible. I wanted to know what the brightest minds of the past and present were saying about this text and that doctrine. I wanted to understand what Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Christian Reformed, Wesleyans, Methodists, Anabaptists etc… believed and why. I wanted to know what the issues and points of disagreement were, and where better to do that than at an inter-denominational seminary.
When I started attending Tyndale, I was a young dude in my early twenties who thought he knew everything. The world was very black and white for me. Seminary disturbed my established little world. There were definitely conversations and classes where I felt very uncomfortable, sometimes downright upset, but more often than not I felt humbled. Not everything was as clearcut as I had once thought. You could read the Bible and come out a Calvinist. You could read the Bible and come out an Arminian. The amillennialists, historic premillennialists, dispensational premillennialists, and even the postmillennialists, all had verses to back up their views on the millennial kingdom and the timeline of Jesus’ return. The Charismatics could actually make a strong Biblical case for the continuing use of the “miraculous” or “supernatural” gifts in the church today (as they’re called, although every spiritual gift involves supernatural anointing). And maybe, just maybe, Genesis 1 could be read as exalted prose narrative rather than literal history. Conversations with my peers really humbled me, and I also happened to be attending a Plymouth Brethren church where the people were very open-minded about a lot of things, or at least willing to explore and dialogue. Theological conversations that were not dogmatic were regular occurrences for me, and I came to realize I had never really studied the Bible for myself. Most of my convictions had been given to me, they weren’t truly mine, they hadn’t been formed by hours of deep study. To be frank, I had often prepared sermons in my early days by rewriting what I had heard approved sources say about any given passage or topic. I taught the “right” interpretations I’d been taught. I didn’t really do my own study. This was a deeply humbling realization.
During this time I learned about the distinction between what some call open-handed doctrines and close-handed doctrines. This principle has helped me immensely. Close-handed doctrines are those doctrines that if you remove, neglect, or distort them, you lose the heart of authentic Christianity, doctrines like the incarnation, virgin birth, sinless life, substitutionary death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus, and that salvation is by faith alone in Jesus alone by God’s grace alone. Indeed, you endanger peoples souls to teach against these things or mess with them. That is what heresy is, a distortion of gospel truth. However, there are a whole host of doctrines that Christians can disagree on and the heart of Christianity is not lost. Souls are not endangered. These are open-handed doctrines, and I gave examples of a few of them earlier.
Another way of looking at it is primary and secondary doctrines, but I actually like primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines. Primary doctrines are the close handed doctrines. We die for those. Secondary doctrines are those that we need to agree on as a local church to be able to function, things like gender roles in ministry, church government, and whether the miraculous gifts are for today or not, but these doctrines do not keep us from working in gospel ministry with other churches that differ with us on these issues. Tertiary doctrines are those doctrines that we can disagree on even within our local churches and still have happy fellowship, things like the timing of the rapture and whether Genesis 1 is literal history or poetry. And then there are opinions, personal convictions people have about issues that are informed by somewhat related Biblical principles but that the Bible does not really speak to directly, things like whether Christians should vote.
Not everyone is going to agree completely on what doctrines fall into the secondary and tertiary categories. Some doctrines, while not necessarily primary, are close enough that they can’t really be deemed secondary, in that a church might not feel comfortable working with another church that disagreed with them on those doctrines i.e. the inerrancy of Scripture. That is why some have divided Christian doctrines into “what you must believe”, “what you must not reject”, and “what you should believe.” The third category allows you to say, you don’t have to believe this to be saved, but you absolutely should believe it and if you don’t it’s not healthy for you spiritually. There’s a longer, more complex conversation here, but my point is that it was helpful for me to see that there are beliefs we cannot mess with or we lose Christianity, but there are a whole host of doctrines that we can disagree about, and sometimes passionately, but as brothers and sisters; as family. There is “one body and one Spirit…one hope…one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
There were conversations I walked away from in seminary where I thought “that person is crazy” (and they presumably felt the same way about me), but there were more where I walked away humbled. I grew. I changed some of my convictions during seminary. Many of my convictions have remained exactly the same, some of them have been strengthened for having heard the arguments for the other side. And some of my convictions I still hold to, but in a softer way, they’re more nuanced, and I have a greater appreciation for the other side, for diversity. I think diversity can often keep us from flying to extremes. It makes us more balanced and thoughtful. It can protect us from distorting the gospel in a subtle way, where we add layers upon layers to what a person must believe to be truly saved. The different “ists” and “ians” need each other; together we clarify what the gospel is and isn’t, and we move each other farther away from the theological fringes and closer to Biblical truth.
If you were to ask me, what was the greatest thing you learned at seminary, it is the need within the Church today for more dialogue that is humble, respectful, and civil, and where the participants don’t assume the worst of each other. In seminary, I started to learn how to listen, to really take in what the other person was saying, and to wrestle with it with the Bible (still learning, far from perfect). It was more satisfying to believe things because I’d really investigated them. Some of the things said in my classes or by my peers were wrong, just plain wrong, but now I was able to see that because I had truly wrestled with the text- is this person’s interpretation legitimate given what the verses in their context are saying? No!
It was liberating to be able to disagree with someone’s beliefs without fearing them. It was exciting to see just how large the Christian family really is, it isn’t just me and my tribe. There’s more that binds us than divides us, and indeed the divisions never need to be so deep that we cannot work together in some capacity for the gospel and have each others backs and learn from each other. I was introduced to the Kingdom of God, which is far grander in scope and scale than my denomination or tradition.
Even as I write all of this though, I am compelled to state that there are foundational beliefs that we cannot relinquish; we do so at our own peril and at the peril of countless others, and it has been eye-opening over the years since seminary to see just how quickly, how subtly, and how easily one can go down the wrong path and start abandoning truths that the edifice cannot remain standing without.
What I learned at seminary is that the gospel is foundational, and if we have that at the centre we can work with a wide diversity of churches and ministries and make far greater gains for the Kingdom than if we make everything about our secondary and tertiary doctrines, and that kind of unity is what Jesus wants (John 17) and the world needs to see and we need to experience. God will bless and use that unity. He already has. And that unity opens the doors for revival. But what I have learned in the years since seminary is that we have to get the gospel right, and that is where the real challenge is. The gospel can so easily become all about social justice, political action, advocacy, good works, cleaning up parks, hosting great parties, helping the poor, resettling refugees, and all kinds of other really good, Biblical things, but the very simple, life-altering message that “God saves sinners”, that we need to repent and believe in the crucified and risen Son of God to be saved, gets lost. When we lose that message, we start shedding other essentials, and our walk and our churches become something other than they should be.
Perhaps that’s why we stay within the borders of our tribe sometimes, it’s safer, simpler, easier, cleaner…and it is…but as my wife says, “good things are hard.”
Let’s get the gospel right, keep it central, and work together for the fame of King Jesus.
More of our story to come.