Gordon-Conwell Blog

Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 3

February 28, 2012

Dr. Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 3 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here.

Why should evangelicals care about the early church, about the first several centuries after the end of the New Testament? Another of the reasons why studying that time period could be valuable to us has to do with the striking similarities between the first several centuries of Christian history and the age in which we live today.

In the Roman world, and later in the European world that gave birth to America as we know it, Christianity was “enfranchised” from the fourth century to about the nineteenth or early twentieth. That is to say, Christianity was given favored status within society, and the legal and political structures reflected that favoritism. (By the way, I should add here that Europe has never been the only place where Christianity flourished. But that’s a story for another time!) But it is no secret that in the past hundred years, Christianity has increasingly become disenfranchised in the Western world. The major cultural influences on American society have become more secular (even though most Americans remain Christians of some sort), and in Europe most people have actively abandoned the Christian faith. Europe and America have become “post-Christian.”

The Church has often had trouble adapting to this post-Christian environment. Our ways of presenting the Gospel typically assume a great deal of familiarity with the Christian message, our ways of doing ministry often assume that people respect “church” and will come to church to hear the gospel if we are friendly and inviting enough. Even our traditional ways of defending the Christian faith assume that people believe there is such a thing as truth and that they care about finding that truth. In many places and situations, these traditional approaches to outreach and ministry don’t work anymore, and as we recognize their ineffectiveness, we are beginning to think deeply about how we can best do ministry in a post-Christian, post-modern environment.

What we often don’t realize is that a POST-Christian environment looks very much like a PRE-Christian environment. In the Roman world of late antiquity (roughly the first three centuries of the Christian era), there were many parallels to our situation today. Most stunningly, that society was as rampantly “experience” oriented and entertainment driven as ours is. Although the philosophers cared deeply about truth, most ordinary people were pragmatic, eclectic, and blissfully inconsistent about the principles by which they lived their lives. They sought religious experiences that met their felt needs, but their religion had little impact on their entertainment choices, their moral decisions, etc. Also striking is the fact that the Roman government, while priding itself on granting religious freedom, actually reacted rather harshly to any religion in its midst that objected to an easy religious relativism or called into question the supremacy of the State over religious expressions. Sound familiar? It should.

As a result, Christians in the Roman Empire (and again, there were MANY Christians outside the Roman Empire as well) faced the monumental task of defending a religion that insisted on absolute truth in a society of relativistic, eclectic, pragmatists. They had to foster a Christian morality in a society where the average level of morals—by virtually any measure—was much lower than it is in America today. And they had to convince the Roman government that even though they claimed Christ was greater than Caesar, Christians were still the Empire’s best citizens and thus did not need to be persecuted. The Christians’ relation to the society around them was very different in the first through third centuries from what it would be in the fourth through nineteenth, but very SIMILAR to the relation between our society and the Church today. As a result, the early Church has a lot of insights to offer us as we try to minister in an increasingly post-Christian world now.

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.




Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , equipping leaders for the church and society , faculty blogger

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Karl, You are right, to a great degree, about the use of force in the "evangelization" of northern Europe. That took place in a different time period and a VERY different situation from the one I was describing in the initial post. The forced conversion of northern Europe to Roman Christianity from 500-1000 is one of the decidedly mixed blessings of the Medieval era. It involved the suppression of other styles of Christianity as well as the suppression of paganism. But what I was describing was the attitude of the church in the Roman Empire up to the year 300 or so.
Don Fairbairn 9:51AM 01/28/13
I would be interested in Donald's perspective on early Christianity at the other end of Europe - in the Germanic and Scandinavian lands. There, the clear morality, dedication to religious freedom and integration of religion & daily life was clearly with the heathens, who were tortured, mutilated & murdered if they remained loyal to their native tradition and refused to follow the God of Love (!). The violence of the Northern Crusades (if you will) goes directly against the romanticizing of the Early Church, and is often conveniently left out of the discussion.
Karl E. H. Seigfried 10:46AM 01/25/13
The status of Christianity is certainly not that of 'enfranchised', but to call it disenfrnchised is to miss the continued privilege it enjoys. Ask a Muslim, an atheist or a politician. To call this era post-christian is to miss a whole bunch of nuance
Jim Yang-Hellewell 81 4:52PM 02/28/12

Finishing Well, Part 1: Open Books

February 13, 2012

Megan Hackman

Author's Note: My husband and I are in our final semester of seminary. In some ways it feels like a race to the finish; in others, we are slowly passing through in search of what might be next for us. With this “Finishing Well” series, I invite you to join us in the final months of seminary. I encourage you to consider your own calling and the place in your journey with the Lord where you find yourself. I look forward to hearing where our story might resonate with yours!

I love to finish things up. I receive such an overwhelming satisfaction from the last cup of flour used, the final paper turned in, and the final chapter of a book read. So great is my joy that a friend recently brought to me her mangled tube of toothpaste so that I could share in its completion. Part joke, part gift, I received it and took a photograph before throwing it away. Now I get to the share it with you! Aren’t you lucky. Ha!

I like to see everything come to an end. I like things tidy and filed. So when I see that something isn’t going any further, I write it off and file it away. I assume that’s the end, and I need it to be done so that I can open something new and see that thing all the way through to its end.

Last night, my husband called my attention to how that framework of open or shut, being used or finished, just does not work in life.

God opened the call to spread the Gospel to the world to me in March of 2006. Right before leaving on a short-term missions trip to Bolivia, I heard him speak to me from Isaiah 43. I promptly interpreted verse 5 very personally, Fear not, Megan, for I am with you… bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth… Of course! God was sending me to Bolivia in just a few days! I should break up with my boyfriend, graduate college, and then go overseas for the rest of my life!

I’m not saying that God can’t call someone that definitively or that my experience hearing God’s voice was illegitimate. But what I’m beginning to discover is that March 2006 was an invitation to begin holding before the Lord the willingness to be his witness wherever he would send. His call on my life wasn’t something to “use up” or “complete.”

I didn’t break up with Larry then. He helped me to see that a calling to ministry didn’t necessitate the end of our relationship (Whew!). I went to Bolivia and spent the entire week sick. I did not open any blind eyes that week. After we married that fall, Larry and I pursued joining the staff of an international missions organization. We were all set to train and move overseas when as a team with the folks we were going to work with we all recognized that we did not share the same vision for the country. We had a vision more for church planting than hostel ministry, but we were completely unqualified to start a church. So I closed the “Spain story” in my mind and opened the “seminary story.”

The point is—I thought that coming to seminary meant that the story of overseas missions work was over. In my mind, I had interpreted Isaiah 43 wrong. I had misheard the voice of God. We had pursued going overseas, but when we squeezed out the last hope of moving, it was time to throw that vision away. But I was wrong. I’m beginning to see that God does not view our lives as books that are written one at a time, finishing one before beginning the other. Instead, he can handle a whole lot of pages and chapters in process at the same time. He sees the end result. He knows where the stories merge and flow, interweaving and bringing us to the place of ultimate completion in his story, his eternal story. I like neat and tidy endings, but I’m a work in process, and our lives are ministry in process. There’s more to come…

Megan Hackman and her husband, Larry, are M.Div. students at Gordon-Conwell's Hamilton campus.

Tags: Author: Megan Hackman , biblically-grounded , equipping leaders for the church and society , student blogger , thoughtfully evangelical

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The Seven Year M.Div.: Two Reflections on the Seminary Experience

February 08, 2012


Author’s Note: Journeys are strange. You hardly ever end up where you thought you would, and you definitely never get there in the manner that you conceived. That has been as true for me as it was for Jonah the morning he woke up to take a leisurely cruise to Tarshish. Over the next few weeks I will be writing a series of blog posts exploring how I came to and through seminary. It’s a strange tale with no straight lines. But it’s my story, and it is the path that the Lord has led our family down. It’s not idyllic. I hope that encourages you. Also, in case you just joined the conversation, Part 1 can be found here; Part 2 can be found here; Part 3 can be found here; Part 4 can be found here; Part 5 can be found here; Part 6 can be found here. Part 7 can be found here; Part 8 can be found here; Part 9 can be found here.

Non intratur in veritatem, nisi per caritatem.
-Augustine of Hippo, Contra Faustum 41, 32, 18

In May 2010 I finally finished a seven-year journey towards a master’s degree. If you have been reading along, you know that the path was much different than I had expected. I learned a lot, but not everything. I read a lot, but not everything. And it drew me closer to God, but did not answer all of my questions.

[I want to confess something at this point. I re-wrote this post three different times. Why? Because it seems like it should be a significant piece since it is the terminus of the series. And such posts usually involve a reflection by the author about their experience. And such reflections, like a Twitter account, usually assume that people care to hear your thoughts. Then I realized that I already have a Twitter account, so here you go.]

If two imagined friends, one considering seminary and one already halfway through his/her degree, sat me down one day and asked for my perspective on the process after finishing, I would sum everything up in two thoughts.

First, do it.

If you have a desire to study God and his people – for that is pretty much what we do in seminary – indulge it. The process may become disconcerting or arduous at times, but it is worth it. If I had not gone, my curiosity would have continued to eat away at me. I suspect that there are others out there who are in similar situations. So, go. And when you’re in the middle of the process, if you can, stay and finish. The evangelical movement in the world needs many things today, and one of the most vital necessities is theological training. We are great at loving God with our hearts, but if our minds are not also engaged we are creating a false dichotomy within ourselves. So, if you can, go.

Second, however, realize that the seminary experience will be hard on your faith in at least two ways. First, your mind and heart are tied together. What affects one also affects the other. In the course of your studies you will be forced to ask questions that others have the luxury of avoiding. And, most of the answers to those questions will involve slight, if not major, shifts in your belief and practice. This can unsettling, but good guides who have been there before are helpful to lean on whenever you grow weary on such paths as textual criticism, Trinitarian doctrine, and diagramming the Greek text of Ephesians. Yet, the pressure on your faith is not only due to these profound shifts. It is also due to the fact that seminary is not the Church. To study and to submit to God are two entirely different things. One involves observation and analysis, and the other involves participation, service, and worship. Like quarreling siblings you will want to separate those two from each other, but do not do it. You need to fully engage both, to love God with your heart and mind, and to let the siblings influence one another.

There is a lot more to be said, but I think this is a good place to stop. Want to go to seminary? You should. Are you in seminary? Remember to fully engage your heart and mind, although the road may seem daunting. And, finally, don’t give up. By God’s grace I was able to hang on for seven years - through two presidents, the birth of two of our children, my wife’s return to school, my wife’s completion of her second degree, a job change, and a move across the country. You can do it, too. Just remember to engage your heart and your mind along the way.

Non intratur in veritatem, nisi per caritatem.
“One cannot enter into truth, unless through love.”
-Augustine of Hippo, Contra Faustum 41, 32, 18

Brian has an M.Div. (2010) from Gordon-Conwell’s Charlotte campus, a Th.M. (2011) in Historical Theology from the South Hamilton campus, and is currently strengthening his language skills while in the MACH program. He hopes to matriculate into a doctoral program in August 2012 that will allow him to continue in his study of the thought of Augustine of Hippo. He has a wonderful wife, three great children, and spent ten years in ministry to teenagers, primarily with Young Life International.

Tags: Author: Brian , current students , equipping leaders for the church and society , future students , student blogger , thoughtfully evangelical , training

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Congrats on your degree. I once was in the seminary too. But I dropped out after two years of theology, found other passions. I am always happy to hear that someone else made it through. Congrats. P.s. in some way I feel like I got that degree too. Anyways, from Galveston. Thanks.
Steve 7:02AM 07/27/12
Thank you for sharing your story. I am in the middle of the Orientation Packet for the Online MAR Degree.
Tammy C 6:43PM 03/03/12
Truly inspiring, it's always great to see people finding themselves in this wonderful world of ours. Wish you all the best! Jason
Distance learning courses 4:38PM 02/26/12
Kathy: Glad to hear that your experience has been so rewarding. Hang in there - even though it may take awhile to finish, it is worth it.
Brian 4:37PM 02/24/12
Brian, Thank you for sharing about your journey. I am in my second year at Charlotte GCTS and loving every minute of it. I am like a sponge soaking in the readings and teachings. It seems the more I learn, the more I realize I did not know. It is refreshing and rewarding. It is encouraging to know that it tooki you a few years - it may take me a few years. I feel blessed - I am sure God will show me the final path well before 40 years passes! Congratulations to you!
Kathy Pryor 5:15PM 02/22/12

Jesus, I thank you!

February 02, 2012

Megan Hackman

This summer, I had the privilege of praying with the women of an urban ministry, Widows Harvest. The children at Vacation Bible School had crafted and purchased gifts for the women a few weeks prior. The children had been invited to come and sing, share the gifts, pray, and share a meal with Widows Harvest. Little did I know, I would be the one to walk away with arms and heart full of gifts continuing to bless me today.

These women are veterans of prayer. They passed around a microphone to lift up communal and individual prayers. While the microphone was being passed, they would sing a chorus to a hymn or spiritual song. They thanked Jesus more in that one hour than I have in my whole life.

Their faces and voices permeated my thoughts as my small group talked about our lack of expressing gratitude.

Listen in--
“Jesus, I thank you! I thank you that I woke up today with a sound mind! I thank you for these children blessing us, singing you praise with dance and with loud voices! I thank you for the gifts they brought. I thank you for my son and grandson. Would they know you!”
“Jesus, I thank you!”
“Jesus on the main line…. Tell him what you want. Call him up…”
“Jesus, I thank you!...”

When have I ever been so attentive that every good gift comes from the Father? I am not so willing to thank God for every hardship. I miss the daily blessings from God that made them pour out their hearts in gratitude. Thanking God for a mental capacity, for the presence of children, and for the voice to sing! Right now I am thankful for the memory of their witness! There is much to learn that can’t be learned from the books…

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Colossians 3:16

Pay attention today to times in which you might give thanks to God for something small, something hard, and something completely unexpected. If you’d like, come on back and let us know what you’re thankful for today! May we admonish one another!

P.S. Look up Mavis Staples’ “Jesus Is on the Main Line” and be blessed.

Megan Hackman and her husband, Larry, are M.Div. students at Gordon-Conwell's Hamilton campus.

Tags: Author: Megan Hackman , student blogger , thoughtfully evangelical

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