The Challenge of John 3:16 for Theological Education

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 5-12, 1986, p. 121. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Does the church really want leadership willing to risk for the world? The church, reformed and always reforming, is the hallmark of our heritage. Without this reforming bias, we will never be able to fulfill the challenge of John 3:16 in this intimidating world.

The church stands today -- as it always has -- in a changing world. A visit to any historical museum will show that the world changes and civilizations have risen and fallen through the centuries. In the midst of this historical process, the church’s constant mission is to interpret the event of Jesus Christ and to intercede in his name to a world that is materially and spiritually in need.

As a graduate school of the church, the primary task of a theological seminary is to provide educated leadership for the church in fulfilling this mission. Its specific task is to educate astute interpreters and doers of the Word of God in a clamoring world. As Christ was sent, so too are we commissioned to go forth under the sign of his cross into the marketplaces of our contemporary society, equipped to tell the story encapsuled in John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life."

Yet, quite honestly, we feel powerless when confronted by the world. The sights, sounds and smells of this world are not always pleasant; nor can they be caught accurately on our TV screens. The raw realities are intimidating -- even crushing at times -- eclipsing the tiny oasis of hope wherever two, three or more are gathered in his name.

Every day we are caught struggling with our love/hate emotions toward the world. Sometimes we are at a loss to know just how to respond as we fight for survival. Others of us are so preoccupied with skirmishes within our homes, churches or seminary communities that we do not have the energy to confront the larger issues of our society. The church’s current tendency toward spiritual inwardness may be a sign of our poor health. We are losing sight of the larger world that God loves.

During a recent speaking tour to Egypt, I walked with Emile Zaki, an Egyptian pastor and teacher, from his church in a worker’s district of Cairo to the nearby train station. Though it was only 25 minutes long, that walk took me along one of the most exotic pathways of my life. The sights, sounds and smells that surrounded me were an unbelievable mélange. While preoccupied with my own and others’ physical safety, I became momentarily "lost" in the multitude of humanity pressing in upon me, shouting and struggling for their slice of bread. How in God’s name, I thought, can anyone proclaim John 3:16 to this unruly mob and expect a hearing? The scene violated my sense of balance; this very real but foreign world upset my psychic equilibrium.

This encounter reminds me that most of our 20th-century theology originated on the cleanly swept streets of Basel, Zurich. Edinburgh, Tubingen and Marburg -- a long way, both physically and psychologically from the crowded cities and alleys of Seoul, Hong Kong, Cairo or Bombay. The question, then, is whether these theologies of the Occident really apply to the non-Western societies of the vast majority of the world’s population. Is our present understanding of God’s love culturally bound, emotionally as well as intellectually?

How can the love of God ever wrap itself around this entire globe? There is, I’m convinced, an inherent mystery to the width, length and depth of God’s love in Jesus Christ. The biblical reality is that God loves the world and all its humanity; the more difficult question is whether we do. Are we using most of our energies to protect ourselves from the real world, hiding within the sanctuaries of our middle-class homes and suburban shopping centers?

We already know that affluent Christians are a minority when compared to the world’s poor Christians and non-Christians. What we are not so willing to admit is that we are simply too frightened to venture out among the majority. Even faithful missionaries, like the rest of us, live at times by double standards, giving voice to the oppressed and poor, but requiring middle-class standards of shelter in order to maintain a sense of security. I do not intend to be judgmental toward anyone, but only to point out our dilemma: on the one hand, we are challenged to love and accept the world as God does; yet on the other hand, we are aware that oppressive conditions and dirty surroundings weaken our resolve and undermine our witness. This may be precisely why we admire Mother Teresa, Bishop Desmond Tutu and others who compensate for our limited commitment.

What can we do to raise our level of commitment? When all is said and done, this is the paramount question facing theological education. Are we willing to become church leaders who will make a difference? Are we willing to be more demanding of ourselves, working as diligently as our rhetoric claims?

There is, I’m afraid, far more complacency and laziness in our church and seminary communities than we are willing to admit. We seem to want rewards and recognition whenever we do something ‘extra" for Jesus. At times we confuse our discipleship with our compensation package. Perhaps Jurgen Moltmann is correct in suggesting that today’s Christianity demands nothing. The product of organized Christianity today is an institutionalized absence of commitment. A Christianity without demands points to a church without vitality; it suggests an irrelevant gospel that is largely ignored in the marketplaces of the world.

We ourselves must begin working to become leaders who will make a difference; we cannot stand around waiting for our neighbors to take the initiative. But does the church actually want leadership that loves the real world? Perhaps it just wants leaders who are comforting, not challenging. We obviously need both. The issue is whether the church wants to encourage challenging and creative leadership to develop and to confront the status quo. Does the church desire leadership willing to take risks for the world that God loves? Accepting the world around us is the first major hurdle for most of us.

When I was at Yonsei University in Seoul, a Korean pastor asked, "How can you come and tell us how to revitalize our churches when the churches in your own country are declining?" It was certainly a fair question. Christianity is expanding in his country and in Africa, but waning in Europe and the United States. And, frankly, I don’t have a total answer.

My partial response begins with the need for theological recovery of the power of forgiveness to humanize our global society. We are largely unforgiving and suspicious people who measure power and influence in financial and political terms. Christians must rediscover a gratitude for God’s love displayed so completely on the cross. Only when we become true practitioners of forgiveness, and understand our indebtedness to God whom we can never repay, will we recognize that God’s grace demands our highest priority and sacrificial loyalty. Actually, most of us simply do not have that level of commitment with our heads and hearts. And the curricula in our mainline seminaries certainly do not reflect the importance of forgiveness. We come before the Divine Presence with other agenda, only passively participating in our liturgical confessions of sin and pardon.

Once our theological priorities are in order, the second requirement is to do homework on the specific situations before us. No prescription is worth much without adequate diagnosis -- which requires comprehensive searching. Contemporary society has few "small and simple" problems; our concerns are interrelated through deeply buried and tangled root causes. A valid ecclesiastical diagnosis requires sufficient pooling of intellect and expertise from members of the congregation, the church-at-large and beyond. Clergy must not be shy in asking for help from the widest possible circle of people.

Third, we must be willing to commit and sacrifice ourselves whenever that price is demanded. Most of us, unfortunately, hold ourselves back with conditional commitments to mask unspoken doubts. Our willingness to risk ourselves without reservation will liberate us to be disciples unencumbered by the excess baggage of a tourist instead of the knapsack of a pilgrim.

The fourth step is to develop a dedicated group of workers within the parish who share a common direction and vision. This core of lay leaders -- along with pastoral leadership -- can set an example of commitment to the community. Acting as Jesus’ early disciples, they will work within themselves and beyond to give authentic witness through action of the love, forgiveness and care of God for all people.

These four steps, at least, are needed to elevate the church’s level of commitment in outreach to the world. But will our churches tolerate such aggressive and visionary leadership? Perhaps we would prefer a church led by housekeeping managers who only administer what our forebears created. Thus, our two basic questions arise once again: Does the church want leadership? And do seminary teachers and administrators want to be leaders?

Developing leadership in touch with the world requires modifying the traditional format of theological education. While we must maintain our commitment to the basic disciplines of the seminary curriculum, we can provide additional opportunities that an earlier generation of church leadership missed. For instance, at Pittsburgh Seminary we are now offering seven joint degree/dual competency programs in cooperation with the graduate professional schools of the three Pittsburgh universities. These academic programs enable students to complement their theological and biblical studies with secular skills in public management and policy, law, music, social work, business administration, information and library science or health-care administration. Graduates of these dual degree programs will emerge with knowledge and skills to enable them to relate more knowledgeably to complex contemporary issues.

We are also educating our seminarians to look outward by establishing the permanent presence of a Third World faculty member, inviting guest faculty from abroad and encouraging foreign students who become involved in our specially designed program in international Christian studies. Our curriculum also includes courses on comparative economic systems, the ethical implications of technology and understanding the business ethos. The seminary has sponsored various conferences for the wider public.

Selected faculty members meet regularly with attorneys, doctors and executives on concerns related to their work. Our school is contemplating the establishment of an Institute on Business, Religion and the Professions to stimulate dialogue with decision-makers in society’s public and private sectors. These activities will have an impact in shaping today’s and tomorrow’s leadership to be more outwardly motivated in listening to and relating God’s appropriate Word for the marketplace.

It should also be noted that more and more second-career students from business, education, law, engineering, architecture, etc., are entering theological education: For example, a present enrollment of 425 students includes approximately 40 per cent, second-career people. In and out of the classroom, these students are in conversation with faculty and younger students, widening our horizons to the realities of the marketplace.

Long-range plans at our institution call for establishing effective networks with Third World leadership as well as with labor, government and corporate leadership at home. This would provide seminarians with learning opportunities through summer internships, enlarging the student’s world and motivating students to find creative and collegial patterns of partnership within the global village. With such prepared leadership, local congregations may be more willing to become realistic beacons of hope, and flexible enough to bend to the leading of God’s Spirit. In short, we must shift the church’s thinking from its present defensive posture of caution to a daring outlook for sharing with a world waiting to know God’s love.

We must continually remind ourselves that the mission of the church and the seminary is to be committed always to a permanent reformation -- ecclesia reformata and semper reformanda. The church, reformed and always reforming, is the hallmark of our heritage. Without this reforming bias, we will never be able to fulfill the challenge of John 3:16 in this intimidating world.

Those in the seminaries need to wrestle vigorously with the text of John 3:16 through coursework, times of fellowship and the countless dialogues on and off campus. They must become more astute students of society -- beginning with the immediate neighborhood -- as they seek to grasp the social and economic dimensions of the community as well as competing belief systems. The calling of seminary leaders is clear: both to interpret, and to be involved in, this world. The church is the vehicle by which to carry out the mandate of John 3:16. While moving ahead in confidence, knowing that the cross of Christ has gone before us and that the strength of God’s spirit upholds us, the fundamental question remains: Are we willing to accept and love the world as God did in Jesus Christ?