Tuesday, November 10, 2009


As already mentioned I've known since teenage years that I was destined for some sort of preaching/pastoral ministry. Teaching was the best preparation I knew in terms of broad academic training, and experience in communication and crowd control (!). So after five years of teaching in two NSW secondary schools I applied for the Baptist ministry.

The selection procedures were interesting. I was to read Henry Cook's What Baptists Stand For (quite illuminating), write out my doctrinal beliefs and the books I had read (by then it was about 1000 so I had to be selective), preach on the text 'Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world' to about ten serious people sitting around a table, and answer their questions. Sixteen of us applied that year (1963); I was one of four selected (the others were all my seniors by many years).

The College was going through some turmoil, with the Principal in the gun with some in the Baptist Union (R E Walker, prothonotary of the Supreme Court, F J Church are two who come to mind) for being ecumenical. (Strange that, as Dr. Roberts-Thompson had already written a book on the subject which apparently none of the nominating people had read). He left after the first term I was there, and ex-Principal George Morling - an amazing man, and something of a saint, but a little doddery - came in for a term or two to teach theology.

I was in College primarily to become credentialled. Although I loved study - particularly theology and Bible - I was impatient with the mediocrity of the teaching staff's abilities at the College, so I was choosy about which lectures I turned up for. I actually passed some of those exams without studying for them, and topped the College in theology in my first year, got all sorts of prizes for this and that but put most of my time into the church (a student pastorate at Narwee Baptist). I had an idea God was calling me to specialized youth, or student, or teaching ministries and I should put most of my efforts into church-building, as it could be the first and last church I would ever pastor. I could catch up on theology later. Lecturers who read from their notes, who could not answer questions outside the written material in front of them (only one of them had a doctorate) did not inspire me to drive for 45 minutes in peak hour across Sydney! Exceptions were Dr. J A Thompson ('JAT') in Old Testament, and later two younger staff recruited from pastoring - Vic Eldridge (Old Testament) and Ron Rogers (New Testament and Greek). Except for Dr. Thompson none of the others had published much...

Just this morning I read in an old Expository Times (June 1975) journal - a monthly magazine for pastors/theologians - a review of JAT's IVP commentary on Deuteronomy. Brief excerpt: 'Well informed, but not always well argued. ... The author's own preference for tracing the core of the work back to Moses is supported by no arguments of any substance...'

So JAT was a 'published conservative' - but was sometimes more progressive in his lectures. Occasionally he would complain about something he'd said in class being misquoted by a student-pastor in a sermon. An indignant elder would contact the College to verify the particular heresy. (I'm glad in retrospect that the few opportunities I've had to apply for a position in a theological seminary didn't come to anything!)

Together with pastoring the church, these were busy years! In the first two years at College I added an LTh and Dip.RE to the College exams (total: 12-14 three-hour exams in each of those two years!). I also taught at both the Baptist College (sneaky that: if I taught Greek I had to be there, right?) and the Sydney Missionary and Bible College (English, Gospels),

Back to the confidence-thing... Somewhere in my past I was injected with pedagogical serum: I am an inveterate putter-of-things-right, which invariably gets me into trouble with those committed to the status quo. If the Baptist Denomination in NSW and its College were victims of their addiction to mediocrity I had to fix that, eh? I wrote letters to the national Baptist paper asking why there were a dozen Anglican churches in Sydney with more than 100 young people in Bible study groups - but not one Baptist church. I challenged the Baptists' prevailing fundamentalism: why have a doctrine of inerrancy for the Bible if the Bible doesn't for itself? Etc. Etc. Now you can guess the response. Who's this young upstart who thinks he can fix everything, and is so arrogant he doesn't attend half the lectures at the College he's supposed to? So I developed a reputation as a stirrer... Didn't really bother me (mostly) as I had regular encouraging feedback from like-minded people and many who were influenced by all this provocation to repent and grow and change...

But, to their credit, the staff were gracious (though I heard secondhand - and to this day still - about their mutterings). They even awarded me the once-in-four-year 'Sister Sanders Scholarship' to buy books. Since I was always buying books anyway, I spent it on a hi-fi music system! 

Some thoughts/jottings about theological colleges:

* In matters spiritual, we are all, in some sense, children posing as philosophers, or theologians. 

* I audited some lectures in a theological college as recently as two decades ago, where the professor read from his notes, and there was no invitation to ask questions! 

* The first pastors' conference I was invited to address was to the Victorian and Tasmanian Churches of Christ ministers, sometime in the 1970s. There I asked a question I replicated in many subsequent conferences: 'What two problems would you say you have most trouble with?' Response: management of people, and of time. Next question: how many seminary modules did you have on these two important areas? Answer: none. One pastor said: 'I was under the obviously mistaken impression my theological college was preparing me for ministry. It wasn't. They were simply filling our heads with theology, Bible, biblical languages, and history.' Fortunately all that has been changing since then. 


After College I was invited to become a student Staffworker with the Intervarsity Fellowship (now the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students). It is to the denomination's credit that although I was 'bonded' to serve them for, I think, another three years, they released me, and so far as I know I was one of the few (any?) to be 'ordained' (strange term) to an interdenominational ministry immediately upon graduation. The three following years were heady, inspirational, and evangelistically effective as I traveled the country speaking on tertiary campuses. More of that later.

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