“President Sunquist, we really have learned so much at Gordon-Conwell, but we all have a question.”
I am thinking, “Be calm, my soul, I am sure it is nothing too bad. Listen carefully before saying anything . . . Oh, I hope it is nothing too bad!”
This was not the first conversation I’ve had about Gordon-Conwell that started kindly, thoughtfully, and with affirming sentiments only to evolve into a larger conversation that turns to issues that need to be fixed or misunderstandings that need care and a listening ear.
In this case, we were having dinner with five international students from East Africa, West Africa, Korea, Brazil, and Puerto Rico. The conversation continued, “We very much like the emphases on spiritual formation and discipleship at Gordon-Conwell, but we were wondering why faculty members don’t talk about demon possession and deliverance as part of spirituality.”
I was not expecting this, but I also was not surprised.
Their point is well taken. While we at Gordon-Conwell have been very intentional about teaching spiritual formation well, we are compelled to recognize that this has been undertaken from a Western approach, shaped very much by our secularized Enlightenment culture and informed by classic post-Reformation thinkers such as John Calvin, John Knox, or Jonathan Edwards. Seldom has this exploration delved into the more miraculous workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the role of demonic influences. When discussing Christian spirituality in most countries of the world, you cannot avoid discussing spirits of the dead, demons, and possession.
I responded (if blandly): “I don’t really know the whole curriculum for our various courses and spiritual formation initiatives, but I will look into it.”
I’ve come to see that the spiritual experience of Christians in Brazil, Nigeria, or China is vastly different from that of most U.S. Christians. As a seminary we have made it seminal to our identity that we teach from a thoroughly biblical and global perspective. We teach from all of the Bible and for all the nations.
Gordon-Conwell is a global seminary. We need to give room for our diverse students to find themselves and their cultures, as appropriate, in the curriculum, readings, discussions, and other dimensions of seminary life. I believe we are moving in the right direction, but we are not there yet.
At the initiative of these international students, we are encouraged to ponder neglected facets and nuances of global spirituality. As for me personally, during our time in Asia, and working with Latin American and African students more recently, I have learned a great deal about the experiences, abuses of “spiritual ministry,” and good biblical theology regarding deliverance ministries. I have found that thoughtful deliverance ministry opens up Scripture to me and deepens my understanding of our life and ministry in Christ.
As a result of that dinner discussion over a year ago, last week we recorded a panel discussion session with four people who have good biblical and theological training and extensive experience in deliverance ministries. The panel included two Gordon-Conwell alumni, one senior faculty member, and one Gordon-Conwell chaplain for students. The moderator and the manager of the event were both Gordon-Conwell students. This video will be available for faculty to use in classes as a thoughtful introduction to the topic of demon possession and deliverance ministries. It includes other resources recommended for use in classes and in pastoral, counseling, or missionary ministry. It will also be made available for our alumni and pastors of local churches.
Diversity is a complex and beautiful issue for the Church. Our vision statement, which comes from Revelation 7 (“Many languages, one Lamb, and no tears”), leads us to newer concerns from a global perspective, rooted in the full teachings of Scripture. “Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled . . . ” (Luke 11:14).
(Please see Dr. Karen Mason’s timely post on the need for discernment in counseling to determine if a person’s mental health struggles are psychological or caused by demonic influence.)
Dr. Scott W. Sunquist, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is author of the “Attentiveness” blog. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.