Dr. Pangernungba Kechu
Dean of Postgraduate Studies &
Professor of Society, Ethics & Contextual Theology
Many Christians around the world believe that theological institutions are not only the cradle or seedbed of God’s mission but also the chief force for the renewal of Church and Christian witness. A theological college offers the much-needed platform for churches, theological educators and believers to partner in doing God’s work. It is a place where young minds and hearts are intentionally nurtured to further God’s vision: to take part in mission, equip and guide the church (people of God), and to engage in the wider society. Of course, this is not to suggest that God does not use people who do not have both formal and informal theological training.
I am afraid that the witnesses of theological colleges in our context do not paint a complete picture of success. The developing realities in our society, including the life and witness of Naga Christians, are quite disturbing. This should raise eyebrows of deep spiritual discomfort among theological facilitators and church leaders. This context demands us to emphasize the self–evaluative nature of theological institutions and also re-visit the three-fold mission or vocation of a theological institution.
The first mission and mandate of a theological institution is “to remain faithful before God and stand up for God’s prophetic truth.” Therefore, they should guard themselves from being swept away by the contemporary culture and avoid the temptation of existing simply to please or reproduce the church establishment and its status quo theology. Enveloped by the vision of God’s reign, it is supposed to testify God’s truth even when the church and social systems are failing. The deep cry for change that we hear today from every corner of the Naga society is yearning for a spiritual force which only prophetic leadership and imagination can offer. Like Daniel, theological facilitators and the church need to invoke and evoke the transforming power of God in the world. More important, they should teach its members and students to embrace a Christ-centred prophetic spirituality that transcends our current village and tribe-based churches and denominations. This is the inevitable task of theological facilitators.
The second mission of a theological institution is “partnering with the church and believers.” Though colleges do not partner with the church exclusively and it should not limit its vocation to the formation of clergy alone, the church still remains as its primary constituency. In this sense, it should function as the servant of the church by listening, accompanying and helping them to make sense of their personal, social and economic struggles in light of God’s word and vision. Despite the bold claim that seminaries exist for the church, many institutions and their graduates are performing poorly in meeting the real needs of local congregations. Though there are many reasons for this gap, one of the chief agreements among theological facilitators is the need for a strong emphasis on practical, impact-driven and outcome oriented skills that can organise, lead and transform local churches as the beloved community of God. This means giving importance to planning, community organizing, resource managements and conflict resolution, to cite some examples.
To be sure, some theological colleges and their leadership have become a liability and stumbling block for many believers. Yet, at a much deeper level, churches-believers-theological facilitators, these three entities must build a culture of common spiritual ownership to guide the theological colleges. The cause of theological education will become ineffective in the long run if the critical input and wisdom of one of these share-holders are undermined or left out.
Finally, theological colleges ought “to serve as a critic, a guide and as spokespersons for the church.” Theological institutions and the church are not identical and both should maintain its sanctity and degree of autonomy. Yet, the seminaries and their educators should subject themselves to a higher theological standard. Its calling is to renew the church by offering theological resource and moral guidance. Additionally, theological educators are called to serve as its spokespersons on diverse social, political and theological issues that concern the common good.
At the moment, many people see theological colleges as institutions that produce graduates merely for filling up positions in the church. The popular attitude prevalent among many Naga clergy and Christians is that a theological college is successful as long as it is able to supply faithful graduates capable of perpetuating and recycling the existing church structures and practices. Thus, constructive theological criticism and change in the church that are initiated by theological institutions and their graduates are viewed with deep suspicion and threat. Still, theological institutions and church leaders should continue to confront the evils that dictate the church in many ways.
This is my twelfth (12) year of teaching ministry in Nagaland and I want to admit that I have not been very successful in wrestling enough with the evil structures that are holding all of us captive. I want to name just four demons, among many others: culture, patriarchy, mammon, and institutionalism. In as much as I try to wrestle with them, these four demons continue to haunt me. Culture (those tribal norms and practices that are not biblical, Christ-centred and progressive); patriarchy (the institutions, practices and values that perpetuate male/men as the norm in a society); mammonism (focus on status, wealth and power); and, institutionalism (blind and rigid way of preserving church traditions and theological beliefs).
Let us recall some instances to explain these structures of sin. During elections, money, clan and village loyalty take precedence over everything including God. Again, many of the decision making in the church is based on tribal dynamics (whether clan, social status and gender) and not necessarily in the light of the Scripture and discernment of God’s will. Theological facilitators must be able to show their students that these forces are deeply demoralizing the character and witness of Naga churches. In a way, the true success of theological education should not be measured by the number of graduates that it produces but by the way its graduates are able to break down these evil structures. Naga clergy and theological institutions are still struggling to name these evil forces. Truly, like Jesus did, we must engage in the act of cleansing the temple, overturning the tables of culture, patriarchy, mammon and institutionalism. In fact, initiation of this renewal movement is the vision of the church and theological institutions. Of course, theological institutions cannot solve everything or meet all the needs of the times. But it can at least inspire and prepare graduates to engage the church and the social world with pastoral insight, prophetic imagination and creative vision.
In order to remain faithful before God and for the sake of a vibrant Naga Christianity, theological facilitators, church and believers should partner in helping theological institutions to reclaim its mission and prophetic vocation. They should not only share the same spiritual heartbeat and theological imagination but also plan, grow and impact together for the sake of God’s reign. Ultimately, the three-fold mission of theological institutions are remaining faithful before God, partnering with God’s people and guiding the church, belongs to the mysterious plan of God. Though we are called to provide leadership in the spirit of Jesus Christ, its ultimate existence and growth rests on God. After all, Paul planted, Apollos watered, but it is God who makes it grow and flourish (I Corinthians 3:6).
© 2019, Oriental Theological Seminary