I believe it is a good time to think together about holiness.
There are many beautiful lyrics and powerful sermons written by now-fallen Christian leaders who tarnish and discredit our evangelical family. I don’t need to name them here, but some have had connections to Gordon-Conwell or to many of our churches and denominations. They must be held accountable, and we must pray that they confess and seek reconciliation with Christ and the Church.
What has struck me about the many leaders who have fallen are three concerns that relate to theological education.
First, these moral failures are not new. We can see them in the lives of the Patriarchs, of King David and Moses, and we are warned in 1 Peter 5:8 to, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Our best ancient Christian scholars, bishops, priests, pastors, and writers have also warned us about this over and over again. I read from some of these early Church writers every morning in a collection called the Philokalia. Deeply scriptural on every page, they are so very much aware of the passions, pride (they call it self-esteem), and avarice (greed) that seek to take us away from God. Three great vices.
Much of the early Church writings were about the Christian or spiritual life. This spiritual life is grounded in grace and flourishes in faithfulness. However, it requires attention and spiritual disciplines that help us resist the sirens of the three tempters.
Secondly, I was reminded of how precious and undervalued is the life of humility in community. What I mean by this is that the Christian community that allows for humble confession and mutual support is beautiful and powerful. The temptations that would attempt to pull us down or pull us into their orbit lose their power in humiliation and Christian support. There is no other way. When we admit defeat and the need for grace, we can conquer what would bring us and our churches down. Confession is the normal Christian life.
The third thought that came to me is how we should think about these fallen Christians in regard to seminary education. We need to speak openly about these failures and admit that we need to be more intentional in the discipleship and formation of all of our students. We need to speak more openly and clearly about Christian virtues and the three great vices that would ruin our lives and our ministries. We need to be able to talk about how we resist avarice and materialism when we are constantly bombarded with the sirens of advertising and materialism. How do we control lust and passions (that would include both sex, food, and drink) when our culture teaches the exact opposite: “You are what you desire. Those desires are the real ‘you.’” And probably of greater importance today, we need to say “No” to the temptations of pride, self-importance, and narcissism.
There were two ways of fighting the fight for the good (the good fight) in the early church: alone or in community. Solitary monks were dedicated to victory by fighting the demons alone in the wilderness. But the majority fought the good fight in community, supporting one another and being available when a brother or sister fell. We believe we need one another and that is why on any campus, and even in networked education, we seek to develop humble Christian community.
Holiness is what we seek. Humility is the way. Faithful witness is the result.
Dr. Scott W. Sunquist, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is author of the “Attentiveness” blog. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.