Attentiveness: Character - Gordon Conwell

Attentiveness: Character

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?  (Matthew 16:25f)

“There are no heroes of action—only heroes of renunciation and suffering.”

These are the words of a man who learned to make an organ by hand, played an organ in church at the age of 9, taught theology, earned a Ph.D. in philosophy (while a pastor in a local church), and wrote a best-selling book on Bach which helped to finance his medical studies. By the age of 21, he was an overachiever with a great future in Europe.

Albert Schweitzer was an accomplished philosopher, writer, theologian, and organist, but then something happened to this pastor. As he describes it in his autobiography,[1] “It struck me as inconceivable that I should be allowed to lead such a happy life while I saw so many people around me struggling with sorrow and suffering.” He then remembered Jesus’ words, “Whoever would save his life shall lose it, and whoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospel shall save it.” Suddenly he dropped a life of music, pastoral work, and academics. His first 30 years in Europe was a life of the mind and of music. The last 60 years of Albert Schweitzer’s life were lived as sacrifice for others. Most of us know him for this dedication to curing the sick in what is now the country of Gabon.

What does this have to do with seminary education? I believe we need to educate Christian leaders to have such harmony between beliefs and life, such courage to receive and follow Jesus’ words and life.

Two months ago, I was asked what the goal or purpose of seminary education at Gordon-Conwell should be. Half-jokingly (only ½) I said, “To prepare martyrs.” And it is true, the Greek word for martyr (μαρτυρία) does mean witness or prophet, but we use it in English as a person who lays down their life for the Gospel. Such a person is not reckless, but disciplined; not scattered, but focused; not fragile, but courageous. To sacrifice your dreams and purpose for the hope and life of others takes, well, it takes character.

This type of formation (see that last blog post) can happen in seminary, but only if there is a common agreement that we do not want to produce common leaders. We, together, want to form leaders with Christian character. They are marked by the fruits of the Spirit, and the steadfastness of their Lord, Jesus Christ, who is the missionary of God.

There is a direct connection between such character and evangelism. In our age of consumerism, self-interest, and safety, such a Jesus-like life is very winsome. Who doesn’t want to be around, or to put it more generally, who is not attracted to, such a pure character? One who lives for others, one who dies to self to see others live, well, such a person is needed and wanted. When we see someone who has given up their dreams and opportunities to stand for justice and protection of the innocent, our ears are open. We will listen to what such a person says. They have credibility because their life exegetes their words, or their words explain their works.

Again, this requires disciplined formation in community, around Jesus as Lord and Shepherd. It is counter-cultural, and even counter-intuitive that such formation is a necessary preparation for the struggle against racism, injustice, hedonism, and cultural idolatry. However, our churches need such leaders, and the culture around us need such leaders who are, as Schweitzer said, “…heroes of renunciation and suffering.”

[1] Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography, 1933/1990.

Scott W. Sunquist, the President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes a weekly blog, “Attentiveness” which is posted each Tuesday on the Gordon-Conwell web site. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.


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