Reflections from a “conservative” student attending a “liberal” seminary

After two months as a conservative Christian attending a generally liberal seminary (Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University), which has had the reputation of taking faithful Christians and turning them into atheists, I’ve learned 6 things that I think are worth sharing. Here they are:

#1. The anti-intellectual and anti-academic elements of the modern charismatic and conservative Christian movements are keeping them from having a more meaningful influence on the rest of the world – especially the “liberal” world. The fact is that if we want to win over a lost world to the Jesus we serve and proclaim, we need to be able to speak the language of the world. This doesn’t mean compromising on our understanding of Jesus, the Trinity, the Scriptures or the church, but it does mean that we need to be missional. If we want to be truly missional, rather than expecting others to conform to our beliefs we need to understand how to communicate our beliefs to people who have been taught that we are intellectually backwards and politically unreasonable. For conservative Christians to retreat from these spheres of influence is to effectively silence ourselves and hand over the world to people who have no problem with characterizing us in a negative way.

#2. Though much of the conservative Christian world has been taught that liberals and liberal Christians are not only our enemies, but are totally closed-minded, that is simply not true. I have noticed that as so many of us who are conservative theologically believe that we have found total assurance of God’s affections and the truth of who He is, liberals are seeking the same thing though in different ways. Through not engaging with liberal Christians in meaningful and loving dialogue, we are alienating them (and isolating ourselves), rather than showing them the truth we believe, and so reinforcing the stereotype that conservative Christians are hateful, eager to condemn and unwilling to listen to anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Jesus did not model this behavior, and neither should we. Even though He had no problem attacking the theological positions of the pharisees and religious leaders of his day (who were also holding positions of political power, making each disagreement a political as well as theological one), He also mentored Nicodemus and dialogued with them regularly.

#3. Jesus loves liberal Christians. I know that sounds unthinkable to some conservative Christians though not most, and the sad thing is that most liberals think it is the other way around. I remember when I spoke with one particularly liberal Christian who was amazed that I still loved and would not condemn that person for their beliefs, though I still wanted them to know the truth about Jesus. When we look at 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 we need to recognize that just as each one of us are saved by grace through faith, not based on our good works or holding to right doctrines (though accepting proper doctrine is part of sanctification), we are just as in need of the affections of God and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit as anyone else without exception.

#4. Liberal Christians typically come from denominations and theological backgrounds that used to be considered conservative or fundamentalist. The United Methodist Church was at one time the largest missions-sending organization in North America. We need to learn why things changed, and how to prevent such change from happening in our own conservative Christian circles. Already the evangelical movement has gone from being a solidly conservative theological movement to one with multiple personalities making the term “evangelical” almost meaningless in regards to its theological and social implications. Liberals now have their favorite “evangelical” theologians just as much as the conservatives have theirs. This should be a cue for us to ask some deep and uncomfortable questions.

#5. Abiding in Jesus Christ above all, mixed with propitious love for others in our own lives, a pursuit of radical holiness and deep affection for Jesus are the most powerful proofs of what we believe. If we are willing to suffer for others, love them, listen to them even if we disagree, respond with love and patience, and above all seek guidance from the Holy Spirit in prayer and the Scriptures, we can be a light in a dark place. I have been very surprised to hear from fellow students in Perkins that they can tell when faith in Christ is more than just a confession in a person’s life, but is a living reality impacting everything that person does. My continual weak and broken attempts at obedience to Jesus and His Gospel have been more effective means of preaching than anything I have done, said or written thus far.

#6. Conservative Christians give liberal seminaries too much credit for their ability to destroy the faith of their students. That said, the academic atmosphere is generally one of skepticism, and that can subtly provide a negative influence to faith over time in a powerful way. But this means that every Christian student needs to recognize that all fields of education are taught by fallible people based on frequently fallible information no matter how Christian or “anti-Christian” they may be. Any conservative Christian, as a matter of the central claims we make about our faith, has to recognize that each person is personally liable for choosing how we handle lies or claims of truth. Either my relationship with Jesus Christ will be the filter by which I interpret all information I receive, or I will be agreeing with some other perspective or point of view that is essentially non-Christian. Whether in a theological school (conservative or liberal), or in the business world, or shopping for clothes, the primary call of all Christians is to abide in Christ. People lose their faith when they stop abiding in Jesus as a lifestyle, or discover that they never really clung to Christ in the first place. Either Jesus Christ is everything to us, the foundation upon which our entire lives are built, or He is treated as an accessory to a life built upon something else. This “Jesus accessory,” can be replaced when given the right circumstances, and for some the seminary classroom is the perfect arena for those circumstances to come together.

All of this said, there are a number of other conservative Christians attending Perkins, as well as a number of conservative or moderately conservative professors teaching there. Clearly there is more to this story, and as I learn more I’ll be sure to post those thoughts as the Spirit leads.

-Phil Carlson

Note: As part of the shift in ministry methodology that God has been calling Worth Love Ministries into over the last 2 years, Phil Carlson has been ministering at SMU while also attending classes in the Master of Divinity degree program at Perkins School of Theology. What appears above are his opinions which are in no way endorsed by or representative of Worth Love Ministries, Inc. These are posted here to provide our financial partners and other ministry partners a look at some of the experiences our missionaries are having right now.

2 Replies to “Reflections from a “conservative” student attending a “liberal” seminary”

  1. These words are just what I needed to hear. I’ve been conservative all my life, and I just started working on my Masters of Divinity at a Methodist seminary that I thought was moderate, but turns out to be very liberal. The school is the same one my wife graduated from 10 years ago (she’s an ordained elder in the UMC) and she assured me it was “middle of the road” regarding it’s theology. But things must have changed within the last 10 years.

    I just completed an intensive weekend getting ready for the start of the year. After class ended yesterday, I was beginning to regret my decision to attend the school. I just didn’t think I would be able to handle all the “liberalness” that seems to be running rampant at the school.

    This article addressed all the issues I’ve been worrying about for the last 48 hours. Thank you so much for posting it!

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