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Getting it right

November 21, 2013

Yesterday I had the opportunity to travel with the pastor and assistant pastor of our church to be part of an ordination council for the Evangelical Free Church, our denomination.  It is a key piece in the process of enabling the candidate to become an ordained pastor in the church.  The candidate in question had written a long paper giving his understanding of multiple theological points selected by the E Free church.

Once he completes the paper the council members, made up of a combination of ordained pastors and lay members of the E Free, question him extensively for about three hours and then vote to recommend ordination to the national E Free.  Our goal is to make sure he is “getting it right,” as seen by the E Free, on his theology.  I’ve always enjoyed the process, if for no other reason than getting to be part of a “council.”  It let me pretend I am part of some grand tradition that goes back centuries to exotic places like Nicaea and Chalcedon.

Anyway, the goal of the 15 or so men assembled there was to ask the candidate penetrating questions of deep theological import and then to ponder the accuracy of his answer.  There weren’t any women in the room.  I’m not sure if that is because they aren’t as good at pondering as we men are or what but I suppose, for purposes of what I have to say, it doesn’t really apply.  In any event, as we sat there pondering and trying our best to ask astute questions somebody asked a really good one.

It went something like this – “Can you elaborate on your understanding of the difference between propitiation and expiation?”  My first thought was “Wow, what a cool question!”  It was only later that I did some online research and discovered that there is not even total agreement that there is any difference between the two.  But no matter, the question was admirably delivered and it gave us all a chance to ponder it.

Since my mind is not particularly ponderous, if that is the correct way of saying it, I found myself thinking of other things.  I thought back to my post-mission career where I spent 6+ years working third shift stocking shelves with a bunch of 20-something rednecks, all of whom were not Christians.  I had a lot of opportunities to talk to them, even tell them about my faith.

I can’t be 100% certain but, to the best of my recollection, while I often fielded questions or comments about my faith, I don’t think a one of them ever asked me the difference between propitiation and expiation.  I’m not sure why, perhaps they thought the answer was obvious.  Either that or they weren’t the pondering type.

I don’t mean to poke fun, or at least not too much fun, at a solemn and important process that has been part of Christian faith for centuries but the whole thing has me thinking.  The candidate did a good job and, assuming he can clarify a few points we weren’t able to ponder to conclusion, we voted to recommend his ordination.  Since he impressed me as sharp, sincere and likable I am glad we did.

But the more I thought about it the more I realized that part, not all but a big part, of the process was to establish that he knew how to answer questions nobody was ever going to ask him.  I realized that, while I had a sense he was a good man, I didn’t know how he would answer questions he might really face.  What will he say to –

–          The parents who just found out that their 15-year-old son or daughter was having sex or taking drugs?

–          The man who was just diagnosed with terminal cancer?

–          The family that wants to know if they should attend their relative’s same-sex marriage?

–          The couple that was told they can’t have children?

I could go on with examples but you get the idea.  It is a good thing to be theologically correct, even brilliant.  But which pastor would you call in a time of distress?  The brightest scholar?  Or the compassionate friend?

 

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