Theological schools, especially Baptist seminaries, should be living ethical communities. Not only should all Baptist seminaries have required courses in Christian ethics, but seminaries should give evidence at every level of practicing ethical behavior.
What exactly does it mean to be a practicing ethical community? One can take a cue from the school of character ethics. Certain traits are valued and undergird all decisions and behavior.
These include: equality of persons; freedom of conscience; voluntary assent to confessional statements; democratic decision-making; shared governance; healthy collegial interaction; transparency in administration; pastoral concern within the community; protection of human rights; the practice of grace and civility; and an overall allegiance to the lordship of Christ. The Christian ethicist understands that all of these characteristics have their root in Scripture.
The ethical dimension asks different questions than the classic disciplines in seminary curricula. Biblical scholars probe with analytical tools the content and meaning of texts; theologians and historians synthesize ideas into propositions and interpretations.
Ethics is different even from pastoral care methodologically: these colleagues seek to understand behaviors and prescribe therapies and means of achieving wholeness. In contrast, the Christian ethicist is asking, “As a Christian, informed by Scripture, endowed by the spirit of Christ, how do I conduct myself? What is the right pathway?”
If the seminary is a model community in which students observe, critique and imitate ethical behavior for ministry in the churches, and some degree of social transformation, it is imperative that the theological school be a beacon of ethical praxis. Moral behavior is observed and critiqued constantly in the larger community and is often out of sync with ethical expectations, that is, with well-thought principles or systems of action that portray biblical norms or Christ-like images. Often, Baptists, being a “people of the Book,” fall back into strict rule-ethics and this produces not-so-subtle examples of insensitive ethical coercion.
Many Baptist seminaries forego teaching Christian ethics in the basic degree programs, for fear of being accused of taking controversial positions that might be unpopular with the constituency. Or they are unfamiliar with how a Christian ethicist works.
This denies the seminary student – and the faculty – the opportunity to practice making decisions or to cultivate an “uneasy conscience,” to use Roger Crook’s phrase. An uneasy conscience is not moral relativism, but a continual revisiting of data and issues to make certain one’s positions are valid. It’s a dynamic process, a continual learning experience.
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Baptists provide a unique blend of factors in their ethical quest, many assets of which pertain to trust, freedom, partnership, human rights and the lordship of Christ. Ironically, some Baptist theological educators and boards of trustees seem more inclined toward an episcopal style of administration, a presbyterial form of governance and an exclusively rule-based ethics. If this is the character of the theological seminary, there is little wonder what kind of leadership devolves to the congregations.
Rightly understood, Baptist-sensitive ethics derives from Scripture, a personal relationship with Christ, a sense of acting within a community (that is, congregation) and within an evangelical tradition. In understanding the application of the teachings of Jesus to ethics, one finds a blend of rules (the Commandments), principles (“Love your neighbor”) and character formation (“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus”).
Baptists, as believer-priests, must enjoy the liberty of the Spirit’s working in individual lives. This leads inevitably to freedom of conscience, toleration of other’s positions and collegiality in working together.
The theological school community, like the monastery of old, can provide a unique laboratory to create a Christian community. In this community those responsible for teaching ethics have an important role to play. He or she continually raises questions and possible alternatives. An ethicist reflects on texts and offers comments from his or her expertise. By the nature of the task, ethicists bring to bear a wide range of evidence and learning to inform teaching and praxis. An ethicist works hand in glove with biblical scholars, theologians and historians. Hopefully, those in other disciplines have a high regard for the integrative discipline of ethics.
In an era characterized by an information explosion, new questions, new and daunting technologies, a proliferation of possible moral alternatives and throngs of second-career students with “life experience,” theological educators would do well to reinforce the role of ethics in their learning communities. Baptists in particular.
William H. Brackney is the Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Acadia University and Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia.