Let not theology put asunder

Any board member of an institution that defines itself as a servant of the church experiences some tension between his or her own denominational identity and the goals of the institution: More than one good is being served, and the fit is not always seamless. When institutions cooperate, especially when they form into consortia, the tensions multiply and shift shapes. And when consortia expand and broaden their membership, these issues must come into sharp focus -- however multifaceted. A case in point is the entry of Canadian Pentecostal Seminary into the Association of Canadian Theological Schools (ACTS).

The Association of Canadian Theological Schools (ACTS), the graduate school of theology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, was founded in 1987 as a cooperative venture between three theologically and institutionally similar church groups -- the Baptist General Convention, the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptists, and the Evangelical Free Church of Canada. It was easy for these church bodies to put together a list of shared beliefs and to structure teaching around them.

In 1999, two other groups, the Mennonite Brethren and the Christian and Missionary Alliance, joined the ACTS consortium. Both of these groups came with distinctive theology not held by the original members but also not opposed to their principles and so assimilation was smooth. However, the longer term impact of expanding the consortium was more than anyone imagined. Referring back to an earlier comment by Ken Radant of the Canadian Theological Seminary, Jim Lucas, president of Canadian Pentecostal Seminary, noted that with the addition of the Mennonite Brethren and Christian & Missionary Alliance theological schools, "the camel's nose was in the tent."

One More?

In the mid 1990s, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC) were feeling the need for a seminary of their own. "Seminaries aren't just about education," said Lucas. "They're about tracking students and putting them back into our churches. When our students had to go to seminaries affiliated with other denominations, we often lost track of them. On the other hand, we had pastors appearing with degrees from universities and from other seminaries. How were we to get to know them?"

The group (they resist the term "denomination") has five Bible colleges, and consideration was given to putting a seminary at one of them, but as Lucas said, "I wouldn't use the word jealousy, but I think whichever schools weren't chosen would have felt [he paused, searching for the right word] a sense of unfairness." So the decision was made to affiliate with Trinity Western, not formally, at first, as a member of ACTS, but sharing resources and offering their own track of studies for their students with required courses like "The Impact of Twentieth Century Pentecostalism," and "Charismatic Theology of Luke."

And so things peaceably remained until 2001, when Canadian Pentecostal Seminary (CPS) requested full membership in ACTS. Four of the five ACTS schools immediately said, "Yes."

Lucas characterized the responses: "The Alliance people said, 'Yes, absolutely, why not?' The Mennonite Brethren said, 'You're distinctive, we're distinctive.' Even the Canadian Baptists made a point of using the word, 'enthusiastic.' The Fellowship Baptists, the church group served by Northwest Baptist Seminary, though, had a different response: 'Not yes, not no .... We want clarification.'"

Since every school in the ACTS consortium must approve new members, that was that. Time for clarification was granted. As Lucas described decision making within the group, "It's very much like a family. Lots of schools make decisions like corporations -- they're quick, but there are lots of casualties, because the corporation is more important than its members. Here the members are central -- so the decisions take longer, there has to be compromise, and the decision has to benefit both the member schools and the institution."

This One?

To be sure, Fellowship Baptists and Pentecostal Assemblies have their theological differences. That was part of the reason for caution by the board and administration of Northwest Baptist Seminary. But in the real world, decisions are rarely unidimensional, and so it was in this case.

Northwest and its sponsoring churches had just been through some financial turmoil. Wayne Gatley, now board chair of Northwest (and member of the ACTS joint administrative council) was new to that board in 1999, appointed by the fellowship's annual gathering. He had no previous board experience except at his local church, but he did have experience as an educator and school administrator. He stepped into what he called "... a really difficult three years. Some of the other new members quit when they saw the numbers," he recalled. The short version of a long story is that the Fellowship Baptists closed their college, letting go a number of long-term (and well-loved) employees. It was a hard time for the group, and the seminary board was not eager to follow one time of tumult with another.

Their sense was that the introduction of CPS into the consortium would cause turmoil for some of their members. "Baptists are very conservative in terms of gifts of tongues and so forth," said Gatley in a bit of understatement. Indeed it was not long ago that some prominent teachers within the fellowship described such gifts as "demonic." And there had been some history involving local congregations splitting between traditional Baptist practices and charismatic leadership (or vice versa). There was "lots of suspicion," according to Larry Perkins, Northwest's president.

Let Us Explain

Lucas was not surprised. "Pentecostals are used to being the guys who have to mix in," he said. "When we had no seminary of our own, many of us had the experience of being the only Pentecostal in the class. Also, there are Pentecostals and there are Pentecostals. When someone brings up some strange belief they attribute to all Pentecostals, we say, 'Well, there are some Pentecostals who believe that, or act like they do.' But then we have to point to our own faith statements."

That is where the issue becomes one of perception versus reality. The issue of the authority of scripture is a case in point. One of the seven "bases of agreement" in the ACTS shared statement of faith is a "belief in a high view of scripture." CPS was quite content with that statement, but questions were raised about Pentecostals' view of the contemporary gift of prophecy -- do they believe that it supersedes scripture? Lucas had heard it before. "Yes, we've had to deal with this issue in the past. Our fellowship has had to ask churches to leave because of their low view of scripture."

And when confronted with examples of congregations who have done odd things, Lucas's reply is quick, too. He points out that the fellowship's polity is congregational, and there is no heavy-handed, top-down approach in dealing with the idiosyncrasies of congregations. That being so, congregations sometimes take autonomy to extremes. He says that this brought a spark of recognition from the Fellowship Baptists, who also have congregational polity and have a loose cannon or two of their own. "Belief in local church autonomy" is ACTS' second "basis of agreement." At its best and at its worst, this is a point of commonality and not division between the groups.

The forum in which these perceptions and misperceptions were tested was a carefully planned series of meetings between Pentecostal and Fellowship Baptist leaders. There was a meeting of denominational officials, a forum at a regional meeting (which more than a quarter of delegates attended), even a questionnaire sent to all Fellowship Baptist pastors asking whether they thought CPS should become a member of ACTS and what issues needed to be addressed if they were. There was shared prayer as well as shared discussion. And all questions were encouraged. These ranged from the thoughtful to the needlessly worried, according to Gatley.

"The biggest question from the constituency, echoed through the leaders, was 'What kind of an effect will Pentecostal students have sitting alongside our own and living with them on campus?' Gatley's sense is that the question was about the impressionability of young students: "They forgot we don't have a Bible college anymore." There were two answers to that concern: one, the average age of ACTS students is 35, and they are mature enough not to be easily swayed, and two, it's better to allow students to explore in a safe environment before they get out into ministry.

"There was also concern that our students would be required to take courses in Pentecostalism -- which was simply not true," said Gatley. "And there were worries about a new strain of 'Bapticostals.'"

The Same Kingdom

Lucas answered lots of questions, but he also realized that the constituency of Northwest Baptist Seminary "didn't just need answers, they needed time. They needed to create not only the reality but the perception that they'd done their homework."

A turning point in the dialogue came when the potential partners in the ACTS consortium gathered for a prayer summit. A highlight of the meeting came when Dave Wells, the District Superintendent of the British Columbia and Yukon PAOC, asked for forgiveness on behalf of the Pentecostal Assembly for any harm done to the noncharismatic groups and for the way the group sometimes came across as if somehow more spiritual than others. Apologies and forgiveness were offered and received as a sense of unity and common purpose permeated the meeting.

There was lots of respect and lots of compassion on both sides, but that is not to discount the annoyance factor. Northwest Seminary's board chair, Wayne Gatley, felt "quite a bit of pressure" from ACTS to accept CPS: The process of accepting the other two applicants to the consortium had been very smooth. And indeed the Pentecostal group had a six-year track record of successful cooperation with ACTS. From his perspective, Lucas said, "On one hand, we were thinking, this is ridiculous. We're past that. We're in ecumenical conversation all over the place. We had other options: We had other schools eager to partner with us. This is tiring."

"On the other hand," he continued, "We thought, 'let's be sensitive to their struggles. They have a lot to lose if this doesn't work out. We've probably already hurt them by putting them in the position of having to go through this process. And this isn't about us, it's about the Kingdom."

Larry Perkins also used the Kingdom as the center of his final memo to Northwest's board before they voted on CPS's inclusion in ACTS. More than a memo, it was an intricate, carefully reasoned theological and pastoral presentation. The central question, as he posed it, was: What response to this recommendation will bring God's greatest glory?

He answered his own question. He spoke of a model of cooperation, carefully and prayerfully planned between evangelical denominations, and concluded, "... out of this might emerge a sharper, more coherent witness for the Gospel within Canada, bringing greater glory to God." The Northwest Baptist Seminary board voted unanimously for CPS's inclusion in ACTS.

Wayne Gatley has learned some things through the last years. They have to do with the importance of process and of careful listening. He is full of gratitude for Perkins' quiet, respectful and respected leadership style, which exemplifies these gifts.

Perkins has learned that a high degree of trust has to be carefully cultivated. He quotes Dan Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, as having said, "Trust is like manna. It has to be renewed every day." "That," said Perkins, "is true."

And Lucas? He has a funny footnote to the process, with all its exacting work. An Assemblies district supervisor from eastern Canada told him he'd had a request from Fellowship Baptist to help find a pastor for one of their charismatic congregations. "I don't know if he found them a pastor," he said. But the point is clear. While faith groups do the hard, painstaking work of cooperation, the faithful are doing their own process. Ideally, there's a parallel.

Perhaps optimally, board members of theological schools can be part of both.

In November 2002, Larry Perkins, president of Northwest Baptist Seminary, wrote to all pastors of Fellowship Baptist churches laying out the arguments for and against including a Pentecostal seminary in ACTS (excerpted here).

In considering this application, the Northwest Baptist Seminary board continues to explore what advantages the addition of CPS to the ACTS Consortium might bring. Several have been suggested:

1. The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC) are part of the Believers Church theological movement. They are able to affirm without reservation support for our eight theological principles and community standards.

2. The PAOC have about 1,200 churches across Canada. Their inclusion within ACTS would link us with a very major part of the Evangelical Believers Church movement in Canada.

3. Additional resources would be brought into the Consortium in terms of students, faculty, library, and ministry expertise.

4. The principles of cooperation around agreed biblical truth for the purpose of theological education would be advanced, thereby strengthening the witness for Jesus Christ and Kingdom advancement that has marked ACTS.

5. We would be assisting a major Evangelical denomination in Canada to advance their church ministry training process significantly. Including them within ACTS also exposes many of their developing leaders to sound theological and biblical studies.

6. We retain our current oversight of all faculty appointments and can be careful about all future appointments.

We are also aware of some difficulties that have to be faced:

1. Some of our churches have had tough experiences in their histories in regards to charismatic issues. Can we insure that the involvement of CPS in ACTS would not contribute to this occurring again? We cannot guarantee this, but believe that by and large such things are not occurring at this time.

2. We have not agreed in the past with several theological issues and practices that have marked Pentecostalism. Including CPS within the Consortium would increase the vulnerability of our emerging leaders to these ideas. This is true. However, students would have the leadership and mentoring resources in the five other partner seminaries as a balance to such influence. The average age of our students is 35 and they are mature in their thinking.

3. Although new partners do bring in new resources, they also add costs to ACTS. We must insure that ACTS financial stability is not harmed through adding another partner. A careful study is being conducted to insure this. CPS will also pay an entrance fee to compensate the current members for their prior investments.

4. Currently we have five partners and our arrangements are complex. How many partners can work within ACTS before the operation becomes impossible to manage or else the founding principles have to be abandoned? Our Principal, Dr. Zylla, is guiding the Joint Administration Committee in a study of this issue before a final decision is made.

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Article from: Summer 2004

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