Fall 2023 Convocation Address

August 23, 2023

The Truett Seminary community gathers once a week during the fall and spring semesters at 11:00 am in the Paul Powell Chapel to worship together. All are invited to join, and services are livestreamed on the Truett Facebook page for those who wish to participate from afar. Find the fall lineup here. 

There are some who would seek to pit Paul against Jesus, juxtaposing the words and ways of the former to the latter. George Bernard Shaw was one such person. In his essay entitled “Preface on the Prospects of Christianity,” Shaw, an Irish playwright, critic, and political activist of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, asserts that Paul “does nothing that Jesus would have done and says nothing that Jesus would have said.”

As it happens, Jesus and Paul had far more in common than is sometimes imagined by the likes of Shaw. This includes their respective perspectives on the topic of Christian unity, which is the subject upon which I would like to focus in my Convocation Address this morning. Not only is Christian unity a matter of perennial importance, but it is also something that I have been giving a fair bit of thought lately, not least in conjunction with Truett’s soon-to-be-released strategic plan entitled “OneTruett.” While is my hope to devote my spring Convocation Address to our new strategic plan, each day has enough trouble of its own.

The first of three passages read by Dr. Jennifer “Jenny” Matheny this morning is drawn from Jesus’ so-called “High Priestly Prayer” in John 17. There, Jesus prays that future believers, including us, “may all be one,” even as Jesus is one with the Father (17:21-22; cf. 17:11). “I in them and you in me,” the Johannine Jesus prays, “so that they may be brought to complete unity” (17:23).

The theme of oneness and unity also features in our reading from 1 Corinthians. Amid his instruction to an infighting, fractured fellowship regarding spiritual gifts, Paul employs the human body as an analogy. As with the human body, where there is unity in diversity, so also with the body of Christ, Paul propounds (1 Corinthians 12:12, 14). By virtue of Spirit-baptism, Paul reckons, Christ-followers—in Corinth and elsewhere, then and now—are formed into one body and are given one Spirit to drink, be they Jew or Gentile, slave or free (1 Cor 12:13). (Parenthetically, you might have noticed that the pairing “male and female” is missing here [cf. Galatians 3:28]. Given the sexual confusion among the Corinthians, as evidenced in 1 Corinthians 5-7 as well as 1 Corinthians 11, this comes as no great surprise.)  

In the third text read in our hearing, the Ephesians and others who were and are addressed by this cyclical epistle are called to do their best “to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). On the heels of this admonition, there follows a seven-fold affirmation of oneness in Christ. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called (hear “converted”); (there is) one Lord, one faith, one baptism, (and) one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (4:4-6).

If both Jesus and Paul thought and taught that unity among believers was foundational and lived and died unto that high and holy end, then we would be wise and would do well to ascertain what is meant by Christian unity and to live toward that good and godly end ourselves.

Before reflecting briefly as to how we might attain “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” with special respect to the Truett Seminary community, suffer me a word or two regarding what unity is not.

For a start, unity is not uniformity. Paul makes this vital point in a memorable, even comical, way in 1 Corinthians 12:15-20, when he writes:

If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,”             that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body.

As with the human body, in the body of Christ, there is to be unity in diversity, oneness but not sameness. As it pertains to Truett, every member of our community matters— whether you are a new or returning student, a faculty or staff member, a tenure-track or tenured professor, a lecturer or endowed professor, a non-exempt or exempt employee, a Baptist or Methodist, a masters or doctoral student, a Houston or San Antonio student and so on. To be sure, there are differences among us both in roles and responsibilities, but there need not, indeed there ought not, be discord nor disrespect, division nor derision.

Secondly, we do well to note that even as unity is not uniformity neither does unity require unanimity. When a vote is called for, unanimous votes can be wondrous. As it happens and for the record, the Truett faculty is frequently able to achieve unanimity. That being said, unanimity is not a necessary a prerequisite for unity.

In the early church, there were any number of deep disagreements, not based merely upon personalities but also on principles. One recalls, for example, the “sharp disagreement” that arose between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark (Acts 15:39) as well as the acute conflict that occurred between Paul and Peter overeating with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-14). One also recollects the discord between Euodia and Syntyche of Philippians fame (Philippians 4:2).

Jesus’ disciples could also get crosswise with one another on occasion. As things are so they were. One of the more well-known episodes is when ten of the disciples became indignant with James and John for requesting of Jesus if they could sit on either side of him in glory (Mark 10:35-45). 

To be honest and to be sure, Christian unity, at least this side of eternity, while always desirable, is not always achievable. Sometimes the differences, disagreements, and discord are acute, too acute, for oneness to be possible. All too frequently, however, unity is viewed as a Christian commodity instead of a Christian necessity. Lord, forgive us. Lord, forgive me. We should pray and ache for concord instead of conflict, reconciliation instead of rancor. We should seek to commune with one another, not cancel one another.

In order for Christian unity to become an ever-increasing reality, what is required? How can it be? It begins, I would contend, with a common confession. Near the outset of 1 Corinthians 12, where, as we have heard, Christian unity features, Paul maintains that “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (12:3). The declaration “Jesus is Lord” was one of the, if not the, foundational confessions of the earliest Christians and remains so until now. To take but one other New Testament example, Romans 10:9 states, “If you confess with your lips that ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

When I baptize, I ask baptizands, “What is your confession of faith?” They, in turn, declare, “Jesus is Lord.” I, then, upon their confession of faith, baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, speaking over them as they are plunged into a watery grave, “You are buried with Christ in baptism unto his death and raised to walk in newness of life.” 

Additionally, Philippians 2:10-11 instructs that every knee should bend and every tongue should confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.” “For no one can lay any foundation than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).

In addition to the confession “Jesus is Lord,” there is doctrinal unity at Truett Seminary, though not absolute uniformity due to ecclesial and denominational differences and distinctives, regarding other core Christian commitments. These are outlined in our “Statement of Common Faith,” which functions for our community as a confession and expression of basic doctrinal agreement. The topics taken up therein include: Jesus Christ, God, Humanity, Redemption, Salvation by Grace, Conversion, Scripture and Creeds, the Church, Baptist Distinctives, Ordinances, Sexuality and Marriage, and the Lord’s Return and Last Things.

First framed by now Emeritus Professor, Dr. Roger E. Olson, at the request of Truett’s third Dean, Dr. Paul W. Powell, this statement is not exhaustive, but it is indicative of our basic, bedrock beliefs as a community of faith and learning. It guides us even as it guards us.

It might be helpful to say in passing here that the Baptist denominational distinctives espoused therein are held freely and generously by a considerable majority of our faculty and student body, but are not necessarily regarded as essential for employment or enrollment at Truett Seminary. For my part, as a lifelong Baptist until now, I regard convictional congruity with respect to what C.S. Lewis once called the “deep middle” or to what N.T. Wright refers to as “simply Christian” to be more important than most all denominational distinctives, including Baptist ones.

If one were to ask the question, “Is Truett a Baptist seminary?” the answer would be “yes,” even as Baylor is a Baptist university. If one were to ask, “Is Truett exclusively a Baptist seminary,” the answer would be “no,” neither in the past nor the present. In fact, as of yesterday, Dr. Rusty Freeman, Director of Truett’s Wesley House of Studies, informed me that there are now 75 students, roughly 1/5 of our overall student body, who are part of our Wesley House. Here us say, Wesleyan friends, you are both wanted and welcomed here. The same is true for Christ-followers from other Christian communions.       

If we are to attain unity, we must not only embrace a common confession (and concomitant commitments) but we must also extend uncommon care. Or, as my friend David Horrell puts it, we must be marked and animated by other-regard. Returning to 1 Corinthians 12, Paul instructs in vv. 24-26 that “God has so arranged the body…that there may be no dissension within the body but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

Returning to Philippians 2, at the outset of that remarkable chapter of Scripture, the apostle instructs:

If there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if any fellowship in the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, then make my joy complete by being of the same mind,    maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourself. Do not look out for your own personal interests, but look out for the interests of others. Have this same habit of mind among yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus…. (vv. 1-5).

This habit of mind is on full display in John 13, which is strategically placed before what is known as the “Upper Room Discourse,” which concludes with Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer” in John 17, to which I referred earlier in this address. In John 13, in the middle of an evening meal with his disciples, Jesus gets up from the meal, takes off his outer garment, wraps a towel around his waist, and commences to wash and dry the disciples’ feet. Such sacrificial service, born of considerateness and humility, continues to instruct and inspire us.

As we consider our common life at Truett, which we trust will be marked by uncommon care, we are guided in no small measure by a document entitled “Vision for Life Together,” drafted in large measure by Dr. Kimlyn J. Bender. It, along with our “Statement of Common Faith,” may be found in various places, including on Truett’s website under the tab “What We Believe.” If you have not read these documents lately, I would encourage you to do so.

Truett’s “Vision for Life Together,” which is not meant to be employed as an instrument to ensure doctrinal uniformity but “as an expression of our shared aspirations and commitments for a common life together,” may be described not only as theological but also as doxological. Each of the five sections of this document commence with the phrase “We give thanks.” Taken together, the five organizational headings of this common confession, run as follows:

  • We give thanks for the gift of the salvation that God has accomplished for us in Jesus Christ as witnessed and announced in Holy Scripture.
  • We give thanks for the relations we share with others as fellow Christians with whom we are called to confess a common faith.
  • We give thanks for the relations we share with others as neighbors with whom we are called to share a mutual love.
  • We give thanks for the relations we share with others as friends and family members with whom we are called to embrace a shared hope.
  • We give thanks for our lives as embodied persons created by God and set in the context of a good created order longing for redemption.    

I, for one, am grateful that these commitments, which are appropriately elaborated upon in the document, both undergird and guide our common life as a seminary community that aspires to both “the highest reason and the fullest faith.”

Please allow me to conclude this convocation address, which has focused upon Christian unity as envisioned by Jesus and Paul and appropriated, albeit imperfectly, at Truett Seminary, with a simple invitation. At the conclusion of this service, please join us for lunch in the Piper Great Hall, which is adjacent to the Powell Chapel. If you did not register in advance for the meal, please linger at the back of the line until those who have registered have been served. It is likely that there will be plenty.

The only agenda for our luncheon today is to enjoy table fellowship with one another. If it was good enough for the earliest Christ-followers, it is good enough for us! After everyone has been served and has time to eat, we will offer a blessing and devote a few minutes to large group conversation. We will dismiss no later than 12:45 PM so that those who have 1 PM classes can get to them in good time. My hope is that such fellowship will help to facilitate Christian friendship and unity among the community and family that is Truett Seminary, of which we are all a part and for which we may all be most grateful.