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There is one sure fire way to undermine the character of Christian witness and mission – bind them to systems of coercive power. To the great detriment of the Body of Christ, this is precisely what has happened in the cultural phenomenon of Christendom.
To understand what this has to do with theological education, we must first see what it has to do with the Church out of which our current system of theological education was born.
The dominant expression of Christianity in the West takes Christendom for granted. We expect the average person to have familiarity, if not empathy, with Judeo-Christian morals and values. We vie for our government to embrace and enforce Christian sentiments and practices. We expect “going to church” to be received by others as a vitally, if not at least potentially, important thing to do. We operate out of the assumption that our biggest problem is getting people to believe the right thing in the intellectual sense. All of these expectations stem from Christendom as a social power structure within modernity and they have served to (mis)shape the Church as we know it.
It is from this sort of Church history that our institutions of theological education have grown. They are Christendom-shaped feeder systems for Christendom-shaped churches. Assuming the centrality of Christianity in the broader culture, students are educated more as managers than missionaries. Managers and missionaries are two different sorts of leaders. Whereas managerial leadership is predicated on positional power marked by knowing more than others, missional leadership is predicated on Christlike character, marked by holistic discipleship. Thus, the ultimate problem with our current system of theological education is that it is not designed to make holistic disciples.
Discipleship is a life-long battle of allegiances. For the missional church and for a missional vision of theological education, the battle is largely between Christendom, attempting to use systems of coercive power for good, and participation in the Missio Dei, a way marked by humble obedience, uncomfortable faithfulness, and hope in the midst of death.
Like the ring from Lord of the Rings, many well intentioned Christians have sought to use Christendom for good, but it doesn’t work like that. Without doing irrevocable damage to what it means to be a disciple, we can’t use systems of coercive power for good. They are firmly and always in opposition and this is why trying to cultivate missional leaders inside of Christendom-shaped systems is a lot like trying to drink ocean water to quench your thirst. The thing you need is there, but there is something which permeates it that ends up having the opposite effect.
Like the wizard Gandalf refusing to take and use the “ring of power,” or Jesus refusing Satan’s offers to achieve his purpose in more convenient ways, missional churches do well to resist the temptation of leveraging the powers of Christendom ideals and systems to achieve their goals. Though they would have the best of intentions, they know and submit themselves to the truth that there is no shortcut.
That being the case, missional churches require different sorts of leaders – those shaped more by a missional vision of theological education than a Christendom one.
In my next post, as a way of moving us toward this missional vision, I want to make some observations on what the fruit of this sort of Christendom-rooted system has been. But for now, what do you have to add to this? Where would you push back?