Matthew Emerson: Staying Humble in Seminary

Editor’s Note: Dr. Matthew Y. Emerson is Dickinson Assistant Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Baptist University. He received a bachelor’s degree from Auburn University and an M.Div. and Ph.D. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is post originally ran in two parts in August 2016.

According to the Meyers-Briggs personality test, I’m an ENTJ. For those of you not familiar with that (somewhat dubious) method of understanding how each of us tick, it basically means I have the classic CEO personality type. At its worst, it means that, left unchecked, I tend towards overconfidence, arrogance, derision toward those who disagree, and tactlessness. Thankfully, the Spirit of God works to transform me into the image of Christ, and thus checks these tendencies in me, usually through the needed reminders from my wife.

Obviously these are not necessarily the greatest set of sinful tendencies to have in your early twenties, without much life or pastoral experience, and with, in my case, an ability to read and write quickly. When I came to SEBTS, my first year placed all of these on display. Mercifully, the Spirit was not going to leave me in this sinful place, but used seminary to keep me humble. I want to emphasize this – when I came to SEBTS, I did not recognize any of this about myself. God used my time at SEBTS to begin to wake me up to my sin, and to teach me to rely on the Spirit to continue to transform me into the image of Christ. Instead of “staying humble” in seminary, then, the truth is that I was humbled again and again.

There are at least three distinct moments that I can recall that the Spirit used to humble me. The first came in my first year. I took Biblical Counseling with Dr. Wade in my first semester, and it was in the preaching classroom in Adams. I don’t know if it’s still there, but there was an old, 1970s green checkered blazer in the back room in case preaching students forgot their coat on the day they were to preach. I used to put that on every day in Wade’s class, and thought it was hilarious. One of my friends and I sat near the back and we would crack jokes the entire class. Dr. Wade, surprisingly (at least to me), never rebuked us publicly that I recall. But over the course of the year he took the time to have lunch with me a few times, and allowed me to preach at his church for preaching class, even though I was a total idiot in that fall counseling course. Toward the end of the spring, he asked me to lunch, and as we ate he began to lovingly confront me about my arrogance, an arrogance that I had never even considered as an issue in my life until that moment. I do not remember his exact words, but I remember two things: that he cared deeply about me, and that his words were used to by Spirit to filet my heart open and lay it bare, showing me the depths of my sin. Even as I write this it brings tears, because I remember what it feels like to have the truth spoken to me in love.

The second proverbial smack in the mouth also came in the spring of my first year. I took Dr. Hogg for Church History I & II, and we had to write short analyses of primary documents. One of them was on Erasmus’ “In Praise of Folly,” and I received a “B” on it. The only comment was, “this is satire”; I had not explicitly identified it as such in the reflection. I walked up to Dr. Hogg, one of the kindest men I know, after class – this still embarrasses me to no end – and said, “I’m a graduate student. I know what satire is.” Dr. Hogg just looked at me and said, “Ok, I’ll take another look.” The next class period he silently handed me his marked up copy, which was blood red with ink. The phrase I remember is, “it took you this long to get to a thesis??” I knew then that I wasn’t as smart, as incessantly correct, or as good a writer as I thought I was. It was academically humbling.

The final one came in PhD work, during my last seminar – Theological Foundations. I’m pretty sure my classmates remember me exactly as I was: an arrogant, overconfident jackwagon. My PhD supervisor, Dr. Hogg, was the professor, and I knew we were on the same page on many of the topics covered in class. Many of my classmates weren’t on that same page, and I just didn’t understand why. Classic ENTJ stuff. So in class I was constantly flabbergasted by the ideas they proffered, and by their unwillingness to just agree with what I said. A couple of things happened in that class. First, one day at the very end of class, so that I had no time to reply, Dr. Hogg, in his unassuming Canadian way, asked me a question. After I gave a brief answer, he then kindly showed my reply to be absolutely wrongheaded and dismissed the class. The other moment in that course, and one that I try to remember as often as I can given my academic vocation, came in a pointed conversation that the-now-Dr. Quinn (Medicine Woman; sorry, Benjamin, had to do it) intentionally had with me after class one day. He asked me why, if I was so intent on my classmates understanding my point of view, I couldn’t show some respectful engagement with their ideas that they, too, were offering in the class discussion. In other words, why would I expect anyone to listen to me if I wasn’t willing to listen to him or her in return?

Each of these moments, among others, sticks with me to this day. God used my seminary experience to show me my pride. This was all grace. Obviously the latter two of those big moments I described were explicitly academic, but all three of them, as well as others, were used by God to show me my spiritual condition. I didn’t stay humble in seminary; God humbled me.

Let’s say you’re not an ENTJ, though. Maybe you don’t struggle with some of what I’ve mentioned. Seminary can still be a place that gives your pride a voice. How do you avoid that? Some suggestions:

  1. Pray. This probably sounds like a trope, but seek the Lord’s face. Understanding God’s kingship and your own place in his kingdom is the first step to humility. Ask God to demonstrate this to you.
  2. Get involved in a local church. I don’t mean just attend a church; I mean let the pastor, staff, fellow members, get to know you at more than a surface level. Biblical counseling, confrontation of and warnings about pride, take place first of all in the local church. Put yourself under good preaching, but also make yourself available to needed, intentional relationships that provide the opportunity for brothers or sisters to speak the truth to you in love.
  3. Get a good anthropology and ecclesiology. God is the source of all the natural talents with which you were born and the spiritual gifts you received at your new birth. You cannot accomplish anything – reading fast, writing well, preaching that shucks the corn and shells the peas – without the help of God Almighty, and you do not exercise those talents and gifts apart from the context of the larger body of Christ. Recognizing that is a big step toward humility.
  4. Listen more than you talk in class. Ask good questions, but don’t just say stuff to say it. Sit at the feet of those who are the experts. Don’t assume because you’ve read one book on a subject that you can now demonstrate to your professor where their oh-so-obvious error is.
  5. Peruse the library. I don’t mean that you should take a nice stroll to clear your head, and because many of us are theo-nerds the place to do that is the bookshelves. I mean, go walk around the library and see how many people have thought deeply, carefully, and thoroughly about biblical studies, theology, practical disciplines, and the like. As the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us, there is nothing new under the sun, and this includes whatever magnum opus you plan to write for your Theology II research paper. Or your dissertation. Get a good dose of academic humility by meditating on what others have done before you got here.

Humility is in many ways about perspective. We need to see our own place in God’s story, we need to see how God has gifted the brothers and sisters around us, and we need to see all the hard work that scholars in our various fields have put in before we got here. All of this gives us perspective about our own place, our own abilities, our own ideas. Humility comes from knowing ourselves in light of who God is and who we are in the midst of the rest of his creation. Maybe some of you will be able to take that advice and stay humble, or maybe some of you will be humbled in spite of your own blindness to your pride, like I was. Either way, God is faithful to conform us into the image of his Son through the power of his Spirit. Praise him for that merciful grace.

In Case You Missed It

At The Intersect Project, Dawn Johnson Mitchell shared 3 ways you can pray for public school educators.

The smell of cafeteria food is in the air. The sound of squeaking sneakers echoes through hallways. And yellow school buses pepper the highways.

 

This means one thing: School is back in session.

 

As the new school year begins, educators need your prayer. In working with veteran and novice teachers for over a decade, and from my own experiences as a classroom teacher, here are three specific ways you can pray.

 

The classroom use of personal technology by students is a hot topic in college and seminary classrooms. In this post at his personal blog, Dr. Jason Duesing shares his views on the topic.

In the 1980s, one of my television heroes was the debonair Alex P. Keaton. My admiration for APK centered not just for his quick wit and conservative politics, but mostly because he had a watch that was also a calculator. I don’t recall at what age I first acquired the same watch, but when I did I remember some anxiety about whether my teachers would allow me to wear it to school or in class–lest they think I was covertly doing pre-calculus on my wrist.

 

How to handle media use in the classroom has been a topic of discussion among educators at all levels for the better part of the last two decades, or more. And, when our culture entered an era of annual technological upgrades and the condensing of multiple devices into fewer things to carry, the collective academic fretting only increased.

 

When I first started teaching and was not much older than the students, I resisted the trend of allowing more and more devices and sought to control and limit all use of non-class-related technology by professorial fiat. However, some time ago, I changed my thinking and chose instead to embrace this brave new world and try my best to redeem it for constructive (or at least entertaining) purposes.

 

Micah Fries shared a post at his personal blog discussing white supremacy and moral equivalency. Micah writes:

“White supremacy is wrong. It is anti-gospel and ought to be opposed with every fiber of our being. You cannot love Christ and claim racial superiority.”

 

“Yes, but what about Black Lives Matter (BLM)? Or antifa?”

 

This conversation, or some variation of it has played out repeatedly across the country over the last few days. What should we do with it? Is it a valid question? Is there moral equivalency between the two arguments?

 

As we begin, let’s state upfront that, generally speaking, any group who employs violence and/or anarchist behavior in resistance to the rule of law should be considered to be on the wrong side of the Bible. This is true of white supremacists. This is true of the Alt-Right. This is true of BLM. This is true of antifa. This is true of those employing said behavior disconnected from any group. This is true of any yet to be named group. With rare exception, followers of Christ abhor disobedience to the rule of law, and particularly reject violence to accomplish those means.

 

In a post at the Baptist Press, J.D. Greear explained how believing is seeing.

Imagine that you’d been blind your whole life and, suddenly, through some medical miracle you regained your sight. How would you prove to someone that you are now in the light?

 

It’s not that you can logically prove the existence of light. It’s not that you can explain how the medicine worked. It’s simply because you can now see everything else because of that light.

 

John’s Gospel presents Jesus that way. It opens by saying that Jesus is the light that came into the world. God’s Word “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory” — the kind of glory that could only belong to God (John 1:14).

 

In a guest post at Thom Rainer’s blog, Jonathan Howe shared seven qualities of an effective church communications coordinator.

Church communications is a burgeoning field. And the position of church communications director/manager/coordinator has become ubiquitous in many large churches. But it’s not just the large churches that are looking to fill this role. Mid-size and small churches are realizing the importance of having a singular person responsible for their church’s communications and social media.

 

So what should a church look for when finding a full-time, part-time, or volunteer communications coordinator? These seven qualities should be evident in that person.

Benjamin Quinn: Student-hood as Neighbor-Love

Last September, Dr. Benjamin Quinn shared two articles here at Between the Times discussing the subject of student-hood and neighbor-love. As a new school year is getting started, it’s a great time to review those posts.

In Part 1, Dr. Quinn discusses the relationship between fellow students. Dr. Quinn writes:

We will begin by considering the peer-to-peer relationships between fellow students.  At least five areas emerge where neighbor-love directly affects how peers relate while students.  The first is pretty straightforward—that dreadful word that has plagued us since Kindergarten—attendance!  Don’t worry, I will not attempt a case for “perfect attendance” here.  If we are serious about loving our fellow students, however, showing up to class should be a priority.  I’ll leave it at that for now.

 

In Part 2, Dr. Quinn focuses on the relationship between students and professors. Dr. Quinn writes:

What does neighbor-love look like for the relationship between professor and student?  We will consider this in light of classroom etiquette, respect and expectations.

 

Classroom etiquette sets the tone for neighbor love towards one’s professor.  By etiquette, I’m especially referring to attendance, participation and good listening.  In part one, we considered the importance of professors creating an open, participatory environment where listening and learning flows both from teacher to student and from student to teacher.  But, now it is important to underscore that the professor is the classroom leader.

 

Dr. Benjamin Quinn is Assistant Professor of Theology and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Associate Dean of Institutional Effectiveness for the College at Southeastern.