It has been 20 years since I completed seminary. I was talking with a seminary student this week which led me to reflect on what I wish I had known all those years ago when I was in the midst of systematic theology, hermeneutics, and Bible survey courses.
One thing I wish I had been encouraged to do was to chase those things that stuck like splinters in my brain. Those comments, ideas, or questions that challenged the way I thought things were. One of those moments happened in my polity class.
As an anabaptist, we held to a low view of the sacraments. Actually, we held them to be “ordinances,” things we just did, but with no intrinsic value. We were discussing baptism and the various means and modes by which it could be administered. I found it incongruous that we were taught that the act “didn’t do anything,” yet there were some clear lines drawn about which modes were acceptable and which modes were considered insufficient. In other words, if someone wants to join our church from another church and they have been baptized in an unapproved manner, they would have to be re-baptized.
Mind you, this wasn’t an infant baptism versus adult baptism issue. This was how the person got wet. It seemed odd to be so uptight about something that we claimed was not salvific. Part of my problem for not pursuing my inquiry in class was that the course was taught by our seminary president and we were all a bit intimidated.
Leaving that issue unaddressed over the years left the “splinter” unaddressed and it just sat there. I didn’t notice it very often for the first several years of my ministry, but once I entered the Army chaplaincy, I was suddenly exposed to many more faith traditions. This led me to experience things that up until then I had not. Different ways of serving communion. Having people cross themselves before or after receiving communion.
I started questioning what I had been taught years previous. As I started to have doubts about some aspects of anabaptist doctrine and practice, the splinter festered. It begged to be addressed. It became one of the planks in the bridge that would lead me away from my previous heritage toward the Anglican tradition.
Had I chased that mental splinter in seminary, would I have abandoned anabaptism sooner? It is hard to say. There was no focal point for orthodox Anglicanism in the United States in the mid-1990’s. At least not like there is today. I may have found a more convincing explanation and maybe I would have stayed where I started. It’s hard to know.
But I think it is important not to side-step such questions while in the midst of preparation for ministry. I read a story by someone else who had a similar experience on a different topic while preparing to be a Baptist minister. Several years later, he became a Roman Catholic.
It may be disruptive while you’re in seminary. It may even mean changing schools. But that is less of a trauma than changing denominations once you think you’re set. Take the time to find the answers early.