A Visit to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Gordon Conwell

I spent Monday night at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Massachusetts (Boston-area).  Thanks to Gordon-Conwell president Dennis Hollinger for the invitation and Mary Ann Hollinger for her hospitality.

The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life sponsored conversation on evangelicals and politics that included Boisi director (and Jesuit theologian) Mark Massa, Dartmouth historian of American evangelicalism Randall Balmer, and yours truly.

A few takeaways:

  1. Gordon-Conwell is a seminary founded by mid-century evangelical stalwarts Billy Graham, J. Howard Pew and J. Harold Ockenga.  Over the last fifty years it has been an institutional fixture on the evangelical landscape.  During the course of the evening I did not meet a single Trump supporter.  This is the first time that I have been at a self-identified evangelical institution where I did not meet someone who wanted to make the case for Trump.
  2. I talked with several pastors-in-training (MDiv students) who wanted advice about how to deal with Trump supporters in their future congregations.  My advice:  preach the Gospel in season and out of season.   I hope they will avoid bringing politics into the pulpit, but rather preach in a positive way about what the Bible teaches regarding truth and lying, welcoming the stranger, caring for the “least of these,” loving neighbors,” the dignity of human life, and the pursuit of holiness.  I encouraged them, to borrow a term from Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, to be “faithfully present” in the congregations and communities where God calls them to serve.
  3.  All of the evangelical millennials I chatted with were fed-up with Trump and the Christian Right.  It seems like a sea-change is coming.
  4.  During the formal conversation, Gordon-Conwell theology and missions professor Peter Kuzmic talked about how his fellow evangelicals in Eastern Europe were appalled that American evangelicals supported Trump.  I asked him publicly if the evangelical support of Donald Trump was hindering the work of the Gospel in Eastern Europe.  He did not miss a beat in saying “yes.”  This is tragic.  It is the case I have been making during the Believe Me book tour.  I told Kuzmic that I would like to take him with me on the road.  His testimony was a powerful one.  While court evangelicals continue to take victory laps over securing an originalist judiciary that might overturn Roe v. Wade, the witness of the Gospel is becoming more difficult, especially for missionaries.
  5. We talked a lot of about “fracture” within the evangelical community.  The days of a unified neo-evangelicalism (if there ever was such a thing) are over.  George Marsden once said that an evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham.  Well, Billy Graham is now dead and there will be no one to replace him.  This is not a statement about whether or not there are any potential heirs to Graham.  It is rather a statement about the current state of American culture, a state that Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers has called the “Age of Fracture.” I want to write more about this.
  6. It was an honor to share the stage and the evening with Randall Balmer, a scholar who has taught me so much about evangelicalism.

35 thoughts on “A Visit to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

  1. Hi all, as an employee and graduate of the main campus of Gordon-Conwell (in Hamilton, MA), first, I can assure you, doctrinally Gordon-Conwell falls very much in line with traditional evangelical teachings on inerrancy, infallibility, authority of Scripture, deity and physical resurrection of Christ, necessity of personal salvation, etc. These doctrines are solidly taught by our faculty in all divisions (practical ministry, Christian thought, biblical studies). Second, while Dr. Fea did not encounter any avid Trump supporters on our campus, they do exist (I know that some of our faculty are Trump supporters, some hold to him as the lesser of two evils, and others see him as downright dangerous). On matters of doctrine that have some amount of leeway in Evangelical circles (like a literal 7 day creation, ordination of women, eschatology, Calvinism vs. Arminianism, etc.), there is a generous diversity at GCTS (and that applies to our politics as well). I am proud to have graduated from (and to work at) an institution that is committed to Scripture and the lordship of Jesus, but still realizes that in a global church there must be a charitable spirit when it comes to the ‘non essentials’.

    Oh, and our media department just released a recording of panel on Evangelicals and Politics. https://youtu.be/jgHvJZ3FRfM

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    • Shae, I don’t think that our brethren in other countries need a satire piece (that isn’t even funny, let’s be honest) to understand someone’s concerns about their faith being made illegal.

      What IS funny is that anyone in America would be afraid of Christianity being made illegal. We are such pampered, silly Christians.

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  2. Re Gordon Conwell being liberal: theologically, the school is firmly committed to the doctrine of inerrancy. I have found that to be true not just on paper. It is where the students and faculty actually all are. Politically, you don’t really see a binary perspective from many of the students or professors. My personal opinion is that majority of the students don’t really buy into the binary perspective of American politics because the majority of the faculty and students have been exposed to a global perspective. For example, my Greek professor did missionary work in Costa Rica for a long time. The theology professor we had at the Charlotte campus retired and moved to Brazil teach theology down there. The Hebrew professor I had last semester has parents who are from Greece. She grew up in a major city in an ethnically diverse neighborhood. The professor who teaches world missions was a missionary in the southeast Asia for decades. In my small Hebrew exegesis class this semester, there are two African Americans, a missionary who is doing translation work in Southeast Asia, a man who spent a considerable time doing missionary trips in Africa, another man who is from Ireland originally and is married to someone from South America, and two women who typically vote republican but just find Trump to be just very disrespectful and crude towards women.

    On campus, we also have a lot of Korean students who don’t really care about American politics. There was a guy in my theology class a few semesters ago who was graduating and moving back to his home country, which is a country that is very much opposed to Christianity, to do missions work. It’s pretty rare that I meet a student who genuinely buys into the binary American political scheme. The majority of conversations I have with students show they are critical of both the Republican and Democratic parties. I think the global aspect of the school is a large part of why you don’t see the school or students really pushing for the Republican or Democratic Party. The whiteness and American-ness of most stalwart Theological institutions in the United States is where you see the sharp divide between Republicans and Democrats. Gordon Conwell has so many Korean students that we have started offering entire courses taught in Korean. You can now take Greek and Hebrew in Korean. There have been weekends where I’ve been in the break room during lunch and was the only person not speaking Korean. Everyone in that room was either from Korea or was a first generation American. None of those students take the kind of perspective you would see from a white American. What few conversations I’ve had with them about politics, the majority of them think American politics as a whole is strange but they deeply appreciate the freedoms we have.

    From the conversations I have had with students at the Charlotte campus over the last few years, the sense I have is that they deeply appreciate the freedoms we have and they also see the unwavering support most Americans have for the Republican and Democratic parties as idolatrous. If you are looking for a school that is going to push Republican or Democratic ideals, I don’t think you’re going to find it at Gordon Conwell. You are going to go to other institutions.

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    • BLJ,
      Those were some interesting insights from you and somewhat reassuring that Gordon-Conwell is not going off track——-at least in Charlotte. I’d still enjoy a good report from the main campus, however.

      As far as the binary matter tied to overseas dwelling, I can’t differ with what you see in Charlotte. I further cannot comment extensively on Christian workers overseas, but I have spent quite a bit of time abroad with American expatriates in secular jobs. Most of them are rather binary. Maybe the type of work explains the difference.

      James

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  3. I’m a student at the Gordon Conwell campus in Charlotte, NC. Being in the South, we have a few Trump supporters. But by and large, very few of the students at the campus are avid Trump supporters. Occasionally I see Facebook posts. But every private conversation I have had reveals few students support him. And the students at the Charlotte campus of Gordon Conwell are older than the campuses up north. It’s a commuter campus. I’m 32 years old. And on average, I’m on the younger end of the students in my classes. The majority of them are older than me. Some of them are old enough to be my parents. Also, it’s worth pointing out that the Charlotte campus and Jacksonville campus of Gordon Conwell is starting to get an influx of African-American students. Which is also somewhat unusual for an evangelical institution.

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    • I’m a student at GCC too and there is a lot more of “us” (African Americans) than when I enrolled in 2013. I’m glad about it but if I had to do it again I’d probably pick another institution.

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      • D, I don’t blame you. I think the school is improving and trying to improve. But I do think we have a ways to go! There is some lack of sensitivity that I have seen and heard about. I am really great for all of the students and the diverse life experiences everyone brings with them into the classroom. I have definitely grown a lot, especially in the area of race. Dr Cooper has really helped me process and understand that issue a lot better. I have come a long way and I know I still have a ways to go!

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  4. I guess it’s easiest today to describe ourselves and others as “pro Trump” or “anti Trump”.
    But Trump isn’t a permanent fixture. If he decided to quit the stage due to health reasons or disappeared for any number of reasons the attitudes and mindset of the millions who helped get him the presidency would still exist. That is the problem more than a single crass individual.
    As a Christian my concern has to be the church first. The buying in on the meaner political positions by large numbers of Christians is what troubles me. It looks like that will probably go on long after Trump has left the scene.

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    • Jeff,

      You are right in looking at “the long game”, but keep in mind that “meaner political positions” are not confined to any one party, time-frame, or political ideology. Likewise anti-faith political positions know no particular bounds.
      James

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  5. John,
    Your perception of seminarian mocking is not accurate. I used the word “pastor” and not “student.” The young men at Gordon-Conwell are not yet ordained. At least I think it’s reasonable to assume they are not ordained. Regardless of that distinction, I personally would feel like a failure if I could not successfully bring a Christian outlook to errant thinkers in my congregation.

    In any case, this brings up another significant question based on your discussions in Boston. You said that you were asked by the seminarians how they should handle the Trump supporters once they are established in a local church. If any of them so greatly fear walking into a congregation peopled with an abundance of Trumpsters, the wise course would be to refuse the call. It just isn’t a match made in heaven. The stress level tied to hiding his political animosities would impact his effectiveness.

    James

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  6. Dave H.

    I can understand that certain people might not like Trump from the Christian vantage point regarding his personal behavior. But what is the alternative? I suppose someone could stand on principle and vote for a third party or perhaps do a write-in. That would show integrity.

    James

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  7. John,
    Your report from Gordon-Conwell was depressing. It sounds like they are headed down the path toward theological liberalism, which runs generally in tandem with political liberalism.. Sadly, this has already happened at Fuller. How far is Gordon-Conwell behind?
    Of course, it is possible that the remaining conservatives were silent because they were cowed into silence by the progressive Boston atmosphere. I’d like to believe that, but even if it’s true, it doesn’t say much for their courage.

    “…thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.” Rev. 3:1

    James

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    • This is what drives me absolutely nuts. The notion that the alternatives for evangelicals are “full-on Trump supporter” or “godless liberal.” And so anyone who takes issue with Trump, like me, is no longer fit for the evangelical fold.

      Because of this mindset, I’m probably not going to last much longer in that fold, and you know what? It is the fold that moved, not me.

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      • Dave: James can certainly speak for himself, but that’s not how I read his comment. He pointed out that Gordon-Conwell is theologically liberal. I don’t think that’s even in dispute. Indeed, I think G-C is proud of its commitment to progressive theology. Second, James noted that liberal theology tends to go hand in hand with liberal politics, another seemingly uncontroversial truism (with conservative theology tending to overlap with conservative politics).

        Where in those observations did you find either an express or implied statement that opposition to Trump renders one unfit for polite, evangelical society?

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          • Hey now,
            Please don’t leave. The next generation of Evangelicals needs Joshua and Caleb types to teach us the history of where fear leads us.
            (Dave, I don’t know you, but I hope you take it as a compliment that I assume you’re older than a millennial)

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            • Alex: just old enough to slip in under the wire of the baby boomer generation. Grew up ELCA, came to a faith understanding in college that redirected me into evangelicalism, was EFCA most of the time since, left my longtime church several years ago and have been attending a non-denominational evangelical church. One of the things I like about the ELCA background is that it drilled the concept of grace into my head, and I have continued to place high value on that concept. It also drilled into my head the historical creeds.

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          • I have not been looking to leave, as “evangelical” is the best description that really fits my theological ethos (in the sense of the Bebbington Quadrilateral evangelicalism). But I increasingly perceive that much of the “evangelical” church has left me, in ways which are certainly reflected in John’s scholarly work and his personal musings. And thus I feel like I have become something of a black sheep in my own church family simply because I did not obediently move along with the tides of politicized evangelicalism.

            What drew my frustrated response here was that a description of a seminary visit where it appeared that a good portion of the community had concerns about Trump drew an immediate blanket judgment that the seminary must be clearly be falling into liberal theological error. Which judgment contains the clear implication that Trump support and “proper evangelical theology” necessarily go hand-in-hand. Which I simply cannot fathom.

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        • Tony: Who said ANYTHING about liberal theology? As I noted in a comment to James above, Gordon-Conwell remains an evangelical seminary rooted in Christian orthodoxy. Faculty must affirm the inerrancy of the Bible. On what basis do you say that Gordon-Conwell’s liberalism is “not even in dispute?” Do you know anything about the seminary? You make it sound as if a person cannot be an orthodox Christian and be staunchly opposed to Donald Trump or be concerned about anything other than 1 or 2 political issues. Please stop smearing a seminary that you obviously know very little about.

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          • John: I’ve posted enough on this blog — and, again, thank you for permitting that even though we frequently disagree — for you to know that I have repeatedly stated that it is both understandable and justified for a Christian to be staunchly opposed to Donald Trump. Further, I have repeatedly stated that Christians can and do land pretty much anywhere across the political spectrum. (Ironically, it appears to be you who rules out a swath of the Evangelical electorate — at least in terms of what you perceive to be their diminished Christian witness — based entirely on their political support for Trump. Yet, I suspect it would anger you greatly — as it should — if a guy like Jeffress claimed that all Christian Hillary voters were undermining the Gospel. Yet, I’m not sure how you can coherently separate those mirror image positions.)

            I should have been more precise regarding G-C. You are correct that its statement of faith is not liberal, at least as I understand the usual tenets of progressive theology. And I do not claim to be anything close to an expert.

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            • Tony,
              1) You’re comparing Trump *supporters* with Hillary *voters*.
              2) You’re comparing “Jeffress types” to Peter Kuzmi.
              3) As I stated before, Hillary does not have the influence over the evangelical movement Trump does, in kind or degree. I mean, 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. 45% think Jesus is the only way to heaven. Looks to me like Tump has even more infuence on white evangelicals then the Church does.

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        • I’m sorry, in what ways exactly is Gordon Conwell Theologically liberal? Where is your proof of this? From my experience as a student there it was absolutely down the line conservative!

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          • Alison,
            Thanks for weighing in on this discussion. Your voice adds needed balance.

            As you know, liberal is a relative term. Fuller Seminary is liberal when compared Gordon -Conwell but Fuller is conservative when compared to Union Theological or Harvard Divinity. Sometimes dark, reactionary troglodytes like myself cloud the waters by not defining our terms within a given context.

            I would have to sit in on classes or talk to professors before I were to make a final decision about the direction at Gordon-Conwell. Written doctrinal statements do not tell the entire story. Professors often sign them while not fully believing in their full intent.

            You might be able to shed some light on it here. Do you recall which textbooks you used in your Genesis or in your Pentateuch class? Which authors did you use for Old Testament history anywhere from Judges to II Chronicles? As far as New Testament, which textbooks were used for the Gospels and for the Pastoral Epistles?

            James

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            • I am going to step in here. James. stop with the inquisition of new posters to this blog. I wonder if you are going to sit-in on classes at Harvard or Union to see if they are liberal? Enough!

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              • Hello John,

                I don’t think I will need to sit in on classes at Harvard or Union. Both of them are rather open about their beliefs. (Although it would still be fun to take a class or two as a silent observer. 👨‍🎓)
                James

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    • James: How does being anti-Trump lead one down the path toward theological liberalism? Gordon-Conwell remains an evangelical seminary rooted in orthodox Christian faith. And please save your unsubstantiated theories about “progressive Boston” and conservative evangelicals lacking courage for another blog.

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      • John,

        Being anti-Trump does not necessarily lead to theological liberalism. At least, I don’t think I said that.

        For the most part, however, Christians do support Trump as you have documented in BELIEVE ME. Those who do not get on board, so to speak, have the option of voting for a third party candidate or writing in someone’s name. These are not the sort, however, who fall into theological liberalism.

        Those who do take this progressive second path have generally become disillusioned by fundamental or evangelical Christianity in general but still have religious sentiments. They are able over a period of years to reconcile political and theological liberalism because they have come to see conservative evangelicals as parochial and less educated.

        As far as Gordon-Conwell, I would have to research what they are now teaching in the classrooms. Official doctrinal statements can become hollow if they are not strictly and annually enforced. Please see my initial statement where I stated that it appears they are headed (future implied) in Fuller’s direction. I did not state with certainty that they are now at that point.
        James

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  8. John: can you expand on what you believe these MDiv students meant — or what you took them to mean — when they asked for advice on “how to deal with Trump supporters in their future congregations”?

    How are Trump supporters any different from Hillary supporters or Green Party supporters or atheists or militant raw-foodist libertarians? I think your advice was spot on, for ALL pulpit ministry to ALL receiving it, but the idea that Trump supporters — Ye Shall Know Them By Their Red Hats — present some form of unique, spiritual challenge, a group in need of extra shepherding solely due to their political choices, is disturbing to me.

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    • Tony,
      That’s a great point. I only wish I were as insightful as you for catching it.

      With that being said, I have to speculate though that some pastors might feel like pulpit and/or pastoral failures if they had more than one or two congregants from the groups you mentioned. It could even send a scrupulous cleric into Bunyan’s “slough of despond.” Ha ha 😞

      James

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      • Nice work, James. I am glad you can sit back and mock young seminarians who have devoted their lives to service in the church and are doing their best to follow God’s call. You can argue with me all you want, but your sarcastic mocking of evangelical seminary students is beyond the pale.

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    • Tony: Many of these MDIV students believe that Trump is hurting the cause of the gospel. When I hear a guy like Peter Kuzmic, perhaps the most important evangelical theologian in Eastern Europe say this, I listen.

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