Posted by: Petros | April 6, 2009

Denominations and individuals vs. the Kingdom of God

While teaching at a seminary in Africa, I met a distinguished president of an evangelical denomination and chairman of his church’s African seminary.  He too was a visiting professor teaching in the area of practical theology, and as visitors shared meals together, I spent several hours with him.  He seemed very stoic to me.  Perhaps he grew up in an earlier, harder generation, where joviality was not common because of the harshness of life.  But my personality is inherited honestly, many say, from my grandfather, who was also born a poor farmer in Oregon.  So harshness of life is not always a good measure of humorlessness.  Perhaps this man’s personality or his culture are responsible–I don’t know.

Therefore, I wasn’t much surprised at his refusal when I asked him if they needed visiting professors in New Testament at his African seminary.  I asked him if it was because I was not a member of his denomination, and he suggested as much.  But it could be that he just didn’t like me very much. I wasn’t hurt or disappointed.  Now as the director of a scholarship program, I am hesitant to offer scholarships to candidates who will benefit a single denomination, perhaps to the detriment of others, because our resources are limited, and we wish to maximize our efforts towards helping pan-African, interdenominational institutions.  There is also an “affirmative action” in denominational schools selection of candidates for higher studies–they would tend to promote their own members above the best candidates. Thus, when that seminary presented a candidate for a scholarship program, we were reluctant to move the dossier forward for two reasons:  (1) it would benefit a single denomination; (2) the candidate’s transcripts appeared relatively weak in the field that he was applying for, causing my suspicion that another more talented person, not belonging to the denomination, may have been overlooked.

A number of years ago, I knew of student who became a professor.  The school then promoted him to doctoral studies.  Later, I learned that he won’t return to the school but apparently used his promotion just to make a better life for himself.  This sort of thing happens all the time. My father, a retired physician, went to medical school with a man with a scholarship from his church, with the expectation that he would become a missionary doctor.  When he graduated, he refused to go.

Scholarship programs for Africa should primarily promote neither individuals nor denominations, but the Kingdom of God.  We recognize that a scholarship may also benefit an individual and a denomination, but we will only be happy if that promotion advances the cause of the Kingdom of God in Africa.



  1. I agree; denominationalism shouldn’t be promoted, especially at the level of higher education, and especially still at this time in Africa. One fact, though: non denominational institutions are very few; the candidate whose dossier is brought to you may often be the only candidate, not one of many.

  2. Yes. Then you raise an issue that would be difficult to judge without knowing the situation on the ground in Africa. I seriously doubt however that no better candidate could be found in this case. The candidate who appeared on paper to be relatively weak in biblical languages and exegesis was being promoted for a biblical studies PhD–and on top of that, the master’s thesis of the candidate was not in the area of biblical studies, and therefore showed no special competence in the field. A deficit in biblical studies in the faculty was being addressed by someone whose ability in the area was not proven, at least not to me.

    While the candidate may have indeed been the best person for other reasons (e.g., pedagogical skills or proven wisdom and character), it was impossible for us to know. Had the seminary invited me to teach, I would have had an established relationship with the faculty and I would have been able to judge more adequately and less able to refuse their importunity. Thus, the denominationalism of the school undermined the candidate’s chances.

    If non-denomination schools however seek funds from interdenominational funding organizations, in my view, they must demonstrate that they are serving a pan-African, interdenominational function. One way that they can do this is through appointing regular full-time professors who are not there because of their denomination but because of their competence. That’s difficult, however, for a seminary board to accept.

  3. I wasn’t responding to the particular case you refer too in the post. I was trying to point to some facts on the ground, which may create a tension with the commendable principles you have expressed. I am just saying that often these principles may hardly be applicable if we want to serve, ultimately, the cause of the gospel in Africa. I am personally in favor of non-denominational approach to higher theological education in particular, and I will pursue this approach as far as I can. But the context simply may not allow this to go far enough. It we take, say, the case of the Bangui seminary, it more and more favors denominational enterprises, sadly, which has begun to manifest itself with denominations starting their own bible schools or institutes.

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