Are You Going to Ethiopia Again?
I’ve been teaching fulltime now for some 33 years, beginning with my alma mater, Biola University in Southern California. But for the past several years I’ve also been a fulltime “missionary.” This is not merely a matter of semantics. By mediating scholarship and service, I’m trying to cope with the incessant tug-of-war between the classroom and directly facilitating the Great Commission.
“Are you going to Ethiopia again?” is a question I’m often asked by students and colleagues. As part of my equipping ministry, I spend most of my so-called vacation time each year taking the Gospel to the nations as a tentmaker. My “scholarship,” no doubt, has suffered as a result. I should not want you to feel sorry for me in the least because of this, however: there is no sacrifice involved. Strangely enough I feel a bit like the apostle Paul who said, “I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). Because I have been entrusted with this commission, and since there is really no choice for me in the matter, there is no sacrifice.
What is it, you may wonder, that led to this shift in perspective in my life? It is simply this. The more I study the New Testament, the more I am faced with this reality: If we are truly Jesus-followers, we cannot refrain from giving our lives for the world. Tertullian’s oft-quoted testimony shows how the church’s essential function is practical service in Jesus’ name: “It is our care for the helpless, our practice of lovingkindness, that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another…. Look how they are prepared to die for one another.’”
I claim, then, that service in the world is the apex of Christian living; it is the center, not the circumference. One sad aspect of the professoriate is that scholarship and missions are sometimes divorced. (Not in my seminary, of course – wink.) Truth is disconnected from life. But the church’s mission to give itself for the world – the world that God loves – belongs to the academicians and theologians among us as well as to the accountants and salesmen. After all, the point of teaching Greek and Hebrew and church history and theology is not to make our students dependent on their teachers but dependent on the Head, so that each of them, and all of them together, might allow Jesus to live among them and in them and through them. In other words, a seminary is designed to help Christians be Christians. It would be fascinating to comb through the entire Bible to discover how many commandments it gives us. Yet two commands sum up all the Bible’s demands on believers: Love God, and love others.
To return, then, to my point: Every Christian is called to share in the evangelization of the world. I see no reason why academics should be given a pass. How foolish to think that we are exempt from living for the Gospel. I am not against attending academic conferences or writing books or giving lectures – I have done all of them – but much current scholarship, I feel, is a laid-back, pleasure-oriented, “hot tub” pursuit (apologies to J. I. Packer). I recall Kierkegaard’s warning that there is nothing quite as dangerous as the abuse of Christian scholarship (Provocations, p. 201):
The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand it, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.
No, my friends, we cannot evade our responsibility. Missions is the work of the church. That work is for all believers. It is for all the regions of the world. Only as a missionary agency does the church justify its existence.
So, to answer the question I’m so frequently asked. Yes, I am going back to Ethiopia again, this time for 6 weeks. I am doing this because I am absolutely convinced that every single Christian is called to bear witness to his or her faith. Too often we academics insulate ourselves from the world. We withdraw into the safe haven of scholarship in order to pursue our calling as teachers or (stated less positively) in a quest for status or promotion or name recognition. Too often we identify the work of the academy with classrooms and courses and consortiums. This is just the reverse of what Jesus demands. He tells us to be salt, light, and yeast in the world by going, sharing, caring, serving, giving.
If we are to reach the billions who do not know Jesus personally, the full forces of the church are needed, and that includes its scholars. We have been vouchsafed in the midst of our academic labors the privilege of sharing Christ’s love among the nations.
Dare we do any less?
November 20, 2008
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.