ABC as a Growing Theological Community

Published: Monday, 05 September 2016


On 16 October at 11.30am (after worship) we are holding a discussion for all interested in the growth of the Ashburton Baptist Church and WellSpring as a theological community. The Dean of Whitley, Rev. Dr Gary Heard, will be in attendance. KenManley GP 0916

By way of preparation, we are encouraging people to read the chapter (below) by Rev. Dr Frank Rees in the new book published in honour of Rev. Dr Ken Manley, entitled Baptist Identity into the 21st Century (get your copy via this link).

We are grateful to the book’s editor, Frank Rees, for allowing us to post his chapter, below. The first few pages may not make complete sense if you haven’t read the essay in the book by Paul Fiddes, ‘Baptists and Theological Education’, about which Frank gives a response. The chapter has special reference to Whitley College and serves as a tribute to the contribution of Ken Manley. Stick with it as Frank Rees goes on to paint a colourful and promising vision for the role of the local church in theological education.

Some questions are listed at the end of the chapter to stimulate our thinking and serve as a focus and flexible guide for our discussion.

Geoff Pound

Why has no-one ever told me about this?

Frank Rees

I will never forget the moment: it was a class in Systematic Theology and the class discussion was both lively and challenging. A vision of the life of the church as a local community participating in God’s presence and purposes in the world was being discussed. One student was visibly excited. She stood in her place and said: “I’m 47 years old. I’ve been around churches all my life. Why has no-one ever told me about this?” Her question has not only guided my own work as a theological educator but shapes my response to Paul Fiddes’ superb essay, ‘Baptists and Theological Education: A vision for the twenty-first century’. Why indeed are the ‘goodies’ of theological education so often unknown to people in the local churches?

Fiddes’ essay has many of the strengths characteristic of all his work as a leading Baptist theologian and theological educator. These strengths, too, are abundantly evident in Ken Manley’s life and work. There are three specific elements I’d like to name and affirm here.

First, Fiddes uses history as a helpful guide, but his major focus is the future and the potential for theological education in the century ahead. Thus, without pretending to offer a comprehensive account of all Baptist institutions throughout the world, Fiddes nonetheless sketches for us the emergence of Baptist academies in Britain from the 17th century, in Australia (where Ken Manley has taught at three of the denominational colleges) and in the United States. In this sketch we see the remarkable breadth of content in the syllabus from 1828 for the Stepney Academy (forerunner to Regent’s Park College)—where candidates for ministry studied mathematics and trigonometry along with Greek Scriptures and Christian doctrine. The movement of these Baptist academies towards integration with the mainline university systems, in many places, is of special interest to Fiddes, in light of his later call for theology to become much more related to university education at every level.

Having identified these historical elements, though, Fiddes proceeds to outline a vision for Baptist theological education as practice-related, inter-confessional and university-related. With the first of these, he is affirming the idea of theology as ‘reflection on practice’, and thus of a perpetual dialogue between the experience of faith in its lived context (all the people, seeking to engage in Christian life and witness) and the careful, analytical and reflective work that might take place in a classroom or library. Students bring such experience into the classroom and thus have important things to contribute to the learning process. They are not just ‘empty vessels’ waiting to receive ‘the good oil’ from the learned one at the front of the room. Next, Fiddes asserts that “the future of theological education among Baptists must be inter-confessional”, which means co-operation with other Christian churches. This should not be done simply for financial reasons—colleges merging or working together because we can no longer stand alone. Rather, Fiddes cites examples of Baptist institutions that are actively engaged across denominational lines or have formed consortia such as the University of Divinity, a collegial university involving now ten denominational colleges in Australia. It’s unfortunate that this segment is the shortest and least detailed of Fiddes’ paper, perhaps because it represents a very significant challenge for us here in this country.

Finally, Fiddes sees the future of Baptist theological education as relating not only to universities, in the sense of providing accreditation and degree programs or funding, but rather as taking its place amongst all the disciplines of the university, offering its own contributions to that wider quest for knowledge and wisdom as well as its challenge to other worldviews, philosophies and perspectives. This is why Fiddes insists that theology must relate to universities “at every academic level”, across the disciplines, and contribute both to qualitative and quantitative research. Thus he proposes that Baptist theologians can engage with “a set of conversations…about different visions of human life and thought” and the various claims and methods of enquiry inherent in these different conversations.

These elements of Fiddes’ sketch of the past and the future are evidence of the second valuable element I want to identify from his essay, the strength of engagement. This element is itself so clearly evident in Fiddes’ own theological work, which engages with literature and the arts, as well as with Scripture, history and doctrine, pastoral practice and lived experience. Engagement here means that all these aspects—from the puzzles articulated by local church members when wrestling with a scripture text or wondering how they will cope with an illness, through to the demanding challenges of a secularist university colleague who insists that religion is not just nonsense and false but in fact pernicious—are fertile ground inviting further theological undertakings. Theological education, in Fiddes’ vision, must be engaged in this way and must enable those who study in and graduate from Baptist schools to continue to be engaged with such challenges. It’s not so much about learning to ‘answer’ such challenges as to live with them faithfully and also develop the skills to reflect upon new ones as they emerge.

The third element is implicit in what I have said so far: Fiddes’ clear affirmation that Baptists have a contribution to make. We do not engage in theological education in its inter-confessional and university-related forms from a defensive or weak position, but rather as a partner in the conversation, with some distinct perspectives to offer. Learning what such contributions might be and how to offer them to the quest for further learning is itself an important part of the educative process and underscores the humility that ought to characterise it.

Having identified these strengths of Fiddes’ vision, I now wish to offer some other elements that are not so much criticisms as indicating wider implications and possibilities.

To begin, I’d like to recall a statement that Ken Manley made a number of times during his leadership of Whitley College. During the 1980s and 1990s, almost every theological and bible college in Australia saw massive growth in enrolments. Whitley College was one of the first: from a college where around 25 students prepared to be ordained Baptist pastors (in the early 1970s) the college took in others who did not seek to be ordained but who were willing to pay fees to undertake a degree in theology (many of them as part-time students), so that by the early 1990s the college had as many as 400 such students. These trends have continued nationally, although the growth has slowed and in some cases the student numbers have reduced a little.

Ken Manley’s observation on this phenomenon was that it is an indication of the failure of local churches in their responsibility for Christian education. An entire generation of people, one might say two generations in fact, have felt the need to go beyond their local church, to study their faith and to develop the skills or insights they need for Christian life and witness. Having worked with Ken Manley during some of this time and ultimately becoming a successor as Principal of Whitley College, I would like to reflect further on his observation and on this phenomenon.

People come to study theology for many reasons. Arising from my familiarity with a number of theological schools and my engagement with several associations of theological institutions in our region, I would suggest five such reasons.

  1.   Clearly there are those seeking preparation for ordained ministry. What is interesting to consider here is the relationship between these students and others, where in many instances the ordination candidates are a minority. In many situations the core curriculum is designed with the ordination pathway front and centre, whilst the other students’ interests and needs fit around them. On the other hand, when the demands of the majority dictate the priorities of an institution (and there are budgetary implications here), other distortions can arise. There is a significant challenge to ensure the defining purposes of the institution and to design curricula that reflect those priorities.
  2.   A second and very common reason people undertake formal theological education is precisely in order to gain increased theological understanding. To put it very simply, they find that they cannot live in an adult and professional world with a Sunday School theology. Their faith is meaningful to them, individually, but in their work life and in the complexities of the contemporary world there are so many issues and questions—moral and ecological, legal and technological, economic and social, etc. Very often there is an enormous gap between the highly individualist and subjective understanding of salvation presented in many contemporary churches and the complex life experience of thinking Christians. Thus, people may come to be 47 years old and not be aware of a wider and more insightful way of reading the Bible and understanding their faith, until they come to study theology. These people do not choose a college for its denominational identity; they want to deal with their questions, and they seek a college that offers a safe place to do so. As a result, the student body will include a richly diverse mix of genuinely engaged and passionate learners.
  3.   Another group of people come to study theology seeking some skills for the work they are doing, perhaps in a voluntary capacity, in serving others. Pastoral care, leading young people, conducting Bible studies are just a few examples of such skills. Others still may be seeking the skill of theological reflection to enrich their professional lives, for instance as teachers, nurses, lawyers, tax accountants or public servants.
  4.   Along with these there are those who seek theological education as a qualification relevant to a recognised form of ministry other than ordained pastoral leadership, such as chaplains (in hospitals, military service, schools or work-places). Community development workers and youth workers are another significant group, all seeking opportunities for theological reflection on their faith and ministry.
  5.   Finally, though, there are those for whom the study of theology has something of a desperate significance. These people have articulated a sense of despair about their local church or even their denomination, and declare that they want to study theology to find a faith that they can live with—or else they may abandon it altogether. I have known some students to declare that for them the theological college was ‘the last ditch’: if they could not find here a faith to live by, they would give it up.

As I reflect upon this list of student purposes and needs, it occurs to me there is another group who must be added, whose purposes do not fit neatly within any one of the categories above. Many theological colleges have within the student body significant numbers of people from other countries or cultures. At Whitley College, for instance, we have for more than ten years now run a special program for a large group of students from a non-English speaking background, almost all of them refugees, mostly from other places in our region. For many of them, this program serves several purposes. It provides leadership training, but it also provides significant opportunities for learning about Australian culture and for them to bridge the immense divide between their new home and the traditions and culture they have left behind. There is a cross-cultural and post-colonial transformation taking place here.

When we consider this extraordinary range of people and purposes reflected in the life of our theological colleges, it is abundantly clear that theological education for Baptists is no longer fundamentally nor perhaps even centrally about the preparation of people for ordained pastoral ministry. It is, rather, about the formation of people for ministry in a huge breadth of forms and contexts. This, I contend, is thoroughly and appropriately Baptist. We who affirm the priestly ministry of all the believers have for too long preserved—and limited—formation for ministry as something appropriate for just a few, for just one ministry: that of the ordained pastor. But if ministry is the collective responsibility of the entire community of faith and the individual responsibility of each person within it, expressed in a rich diversity of vocations, then it is a reality to be welcomed that our colleges are now called upon to provide training and education for this ministry of the whole church.

This means that theological education must relate to and be about living our faith in the rich diversity of contexts and callings that together make up the people of God. It means that when we speak about the ministry of the church we must refer not only to the gathered life of the church, but also to what is happening in the work-places and schools, homes and local communities, sports centres and shopping complexes where people live their lives. This is as much the theological challenge for us as the issues raised in the university conversations to which Fiddes refers—and it is very likely that many of these issues will be the same, albeit they are expressed in different ways.

From these reflections, then, I would draw two major implications for theological education amongst Baptists in the twenty-first century.

First, it is clear that theological education in colleges and seminaries has a much broader function than the provision of degrees for those who are to be ordained. Even more, our colleges are now often the place where Christians (including some ordinands) gain their first real knowledge of the Bible and their first understanding of the breadth of Christian faith and history. In a broadly ‘secular’ society, most people come to university without any knowledge of the biblical imagery that is presupposed, for example, in Shakespeare and in so much of our literary, artistic and musical culture. In the same way, many theological students do not know the content of the Bible or the creeds and they may never have heard of Augustine, Luther or Teresa of Avila.

The educational task is much broader and so too is the formational task. As I have suggested some are seeking skills and insights for a specific form of ministry, but many are engaged with a life task as well: to make sense of their faith and to integrate their life and faith. Theological education becomes then a profoundly pastoral and formative process and therefore very much a part of the task of the local church, as much as it is of university-like institutions. What is needed, then, is a new sense of partnership between colleges and churches, for we are both engaged in this vital work of formation for holistic ministry of all the people.

Given these dimensions, it is worth asking what are the most appropriate mediums and contexts for such theological education. Here I am seriously asking whether the university context, so central to Paul Fiddes’ vision, is in fact the best vehicle for the demands being expressed in our colleges today. Over the last century, Baptist theological schools have become more and more like universities (‘the academy’) and less and less like the local church—so much so that there is a growing sense of a gulf between the two.

I am not for one minute proposing an end to theological colleges. Nor am I urging a return to a past ideal of ‘seminaries’ over-against academies. But I am wanting to suggest that, in addition to the work of our colleges, theology itself needs to return to its home location: in the active life of the local churches, both as gathered communities and in the dispersed life of the members, in their ministries as described above. It is here that theology properly belongs and it is this theology that needs then to be explored, developed and deepened within our theological colleges. They in turn can contribute to this lively and lived knowledge of God amongst the people.

I was very fortunate as a young theological student to hear some lectures from visiting Southern Baptist teacher Findley Edge, and was later inspired by his book The Greening of the Church.[1] Edge set out the vision of every local church as a theological community. In an essay entitled “Enabling Congregations to Become Theological Communities”, however, I have argued that Edge’s vision is too much like taking the existing curriculum of the theological seminary and somehow shaping it to fit into the life of a local church.[2] My proposal is, rather, that in the Baptist vision of the church the ministry of that local community of faith must itself be the curriculum, and the task of the leadership is to enable the people to develop skills in biblical study and theological reflection, thus discerning together the ways of God in their context and lives. In this way the local church will be knowing God and engaging, as Edge proposes, with “what God is about in the world and what God is calling us to be about in the world”.[3]

Here there are valuable similarities with the recently described notion of “ordinary theology”, which Fiddes mentions too.[4] What I am proposing is that theological education into the twenty-first century needs to be a creative two-way flow between the formal disciplines of theology and the informal but lively insights of women and men, young people and children, who engage with God in the complex and diverse dimensions of living their faith. The great challenge for those called to lead or ‘run’ a local church is to provide for and enable this conversation. It means they must not only be skilled in those things commonly defined as ‘practical’ ministry but must also be educators, trainers, equippers, and people able to let others discern and question, explore and challenge. Theological education thus becomes itself a form of ministry in and with the local church or group of Christians, and indeed with others who do not identify with the Christian way. Pastoral leadership, then, includes a significant dimension of theological education, enabling and facilitating such ‘ordinary theology’.

One of the fundamental objections to what I have proposed is that local church members are just too busy or do not want to engage in such reflection. These are real concerns. For some, the solution is to study online, allowing people to engage with theological study at a time and through a medium more convenient to their lives. This is a great opportunity for ‘democratising’ theological courses, in the sense of making them available to a much wider range of people. But there are dangers and limitations as well. Online learning is less conducive to the formation agenda described above and more likely to focus upon content and information. On the other hand, online formats in their better expressions provide for shorter and more accessible ‘bites’ of material, in comparison with lectures of several hours, which can then allow people to engage with the ideas and possibilities raised.

For the broad majority, however, the challenge is for pastors and leaders to stimulate, facilitate and encourage this vision of the local church as a theological community. This has deep implications for the way we lead, preach and teach and for what is offered within the local church program—and for colleges to engage with such opportunities.[5]

As we move further into this digital and dynamic era, there are so many new and challenging opportunities for theological education, both in the local church and in our colleges, and ideally in a healthy inter-change between the two. Paul Fiddes has sketched some vital priorities, which I have both endorsed and sought to extend into the broader contexts in which people live and reflect upon their faith. It will be so interesting to see how some of these things develop! As they do, we may hope and pray that people will not have to wait till they are 47 years of age to discover how they might think theologically and find the fullness of faith in a God who is living and active in the contemporary world.

Some Questions to Ponder and Discuss

1. Have you ever had a Eureka discovery when you’ve said what the woman uttered in a theology class, “I’ve been around churches all my life. Why has no-one ever told me about this?”. Why indeed are the ‘goodies’ of theological education so often unknown to people in the local churches?

What are the features of a clear and challenging vision for theological education that you yearn to see as we live in the 21st century?

2. ‘I would like to train for the ordained pastoral ministry…’

‘I want more theological understanding as I can’t live in this world with a Sunday School theology…’

‘I need skills for my occupation as a teacher, nurse, lawyer, consultant, architect.. or to enrich my theological reflection in my voluntary service…’

‘I’d like to do some theology as part of my degree or for my entire degree…’

‘I want to study theology to find a faith that I can live with. This is my last ditch effort otherwise I’ll leave the faith and the church altogether….’

Do you want to do some theological study and if so, what is your motivation?

3. “Theological education becomes then a profoundly pastoral and formative process and therefore very much a part of the task of the local church, as much as it is of university-like institutions. What is needed is a new sense of partnership between colleges and churches, for we are both engaged in this vital work of formation for holistic ministry of all the people.”

How do we develop this mutual partnership between Whitley College and ABC-WellSpring?

4. “My proposal is, rather, that in the Baptist vision of the church the ministry of that local community of faith must itself be the curriculum, and the task of the leadership is to enable the people to develop skills in biblical study and theological reflection…”

Who are the students? Church people and people in our communities?




How would we set the curriculum?




What do we need to study in the next few years?




How might teaching and training best be taught and delivered for the growth and enrichment of the people with whom we live and work, including the Ashburton Baptist Church and WellSpring spirituality communities?


[1] Findley B. Edge, The Greening of the Church (Waco: Word Books, 1971).

[2] Frank D Rees, “Enabling Congregations to Become Theological Communities”, Evangelical Review of Theology 30.1 (January 2006): 4–12.

[3] Findley B. Edge, The Greening of the Church, 37.

[4] See section 3, ‘Theology as Practice Related’ in Paul Fiddes, “Baptists and Theological Education: A Vision for the Twenty-First Century” in this volume.

[5] For a further discussion of such possibilities, see the blog post by Jason Goroncy, <>