Core Value: Relational Emphasis
by Prof. Jerram Barrs
Seven core values amplify and clarify how Covenant Theological Seminary understands its purpose. In this installment of our series on these core values, Jerram Barrs, professor of Christian studies and contemporary culture and resident scholar of the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute, discusses the origin of our relational emphasis and shares how it is lived out in the seminary community. Rather than answering individual questions, Jerram chose to respond to the topic in a unified manner, weaving together many thoughts on this subject. “There are many practical reasons relevant for our students’ future ministries to which I could appeal in addressing this matter of relational emphasis,” Jerram writes, “but it seems most important to give a theological foundation.”
Core Value: Relational Emphasis. We believe that the relationship between students and professors must take a meaningful place alongside teaching content so that we may affect the entire character of the student for ministry. Therefore, we seek to develop a faculty of pastor-scholars and a staff who both individually and as a community effectively model what it means to walk in Gods’ grace, minister God’s Word, and equip God’s people—all for God’s mission.
It is our conviction as a seminary that in all we do we should be governed by God’s Word and by what God has revealed about himself, so I will begin addressing this idea of being relational by considering the nature of the Godhead.
Within the Trinity there has been love and personal communication through all eternity. Jesus speaks about this love with which the Father loved him before the foundation of the world in his high priestly prayer in John 17:24. John also tells us in 1:18 that the Son is the only God who is at the Father’s side (or “in the bosom of the Father”). I remember Francis Schaeffer preaching “Before the Beginning,” a marvelous wedding sermon in which he dwelt on this eternal love and intimate fellowship between the members of the Trinity, which existed before this universe was ever made. This means that we live in a reality that, before all else, is personal and relational.
We as human persons have been created in the likeness of this personal and relational God, though our humanness has, in every aspect of our nature, been desperately flawed by disobedience and all its consequences. However, despite the fall and the self-centeredness and separation from others that flowed from it, we are taught by Scripture that true humanness can only be expressed and enjoyed when we give ourselves to others in a life of love. When we look at the life of Christ, the eternal Son, we see him living a life of self-giving and servant love.
Interestingly, we read a remarkable statement in John 13:23 where John is called the “beloved disciple.” The expression used in this passage in Greek literally means “in the bosom of,” which is the same expression used in John 1:18 to express Jesus’ relational proximity to the Father. Just as the Son is at the Father’s side (“in the bosom of the Father”), so the disciple John is “in the bosom of Jesus.” In Jesus’ humanity we see a full expression of the love and relationships between the members of the Trinity.
Christ, who died that we might be united to him as his brothers and sisters and friends, is now at work in us—his coheirs—to overcome all the consequences of the fall in our lives. He is restoring us to true humanness as we become conformed to his likeness by the power of the Spirit. This will mean that wherever there is true faith in Christ, there will be a life that begins to imitate the love of Christ. The apostle Paul calls us to have the mind of Christ so that we think more highly of one another than of ourselves and give ourselves to a life of service, loving one another as Christ has loved us.
For me, the realization of this calling to such a high degree is one of the great joys of working at Covenant Seminary. I am deeply glad to come to work each day. Every week it is a pleasure to go to faculty meetings. I think of my fellow teachers as the people I most admire in the world. I often say to our students that my colleagues are my personal heroes and that I am more eager to hear what my colleagues have to say than I am to hear my own opinion on a particular issue. This very evident love and respect between us has, by God’s grace, a powerful impact on the hearts and lives of our students. When my wife, Vicki, had cancer surgery and then chemotherapy, the level of care we experienced (from both faculty and students) was greater than I could possibly have expected or imagined.
Our prayer as a faculty and administration is that the Lord will grant us this kind of a life together so that our students may catch a vision of the way all ministry should be marked by love, mutual honor, self-giving, and sacrificial service. The Seminary’s Francis A. Schaeffer Institute also seeks to embody this core value. One of our emphases is a “commitment to genuine humanness expressed in servanthood and love and displayed in supernaturally restored relationships.” We express the Institute’s purpose this way because Francis Schaeffer often said that one essential consequence of our being Christians is that there should be substantial healing of our brokenness demonstrated in our lives, and one of these elements is to be supernaturally restored in our relationships. This affects our interviews with prospective faculty members. We want to ensure that the men who join us share this understanding of our calling. We look for men who are pastors as well as scholars, men who will give themselves in relationships with our students in addition to teaching them and writing excellent books.
Clearly because we all teach that this commitment to love and to servant relationships is at the heart of the gospel, it is essential that we try to model this lifestyle to our students as well as among ourselves. Christ is the peace between us and God and between us and one another; therefore the divisions which so often exist between people—whether personal, cultural, racial, or economic—ought to be overcome among those who have faith in Christ. For our faculty, there is a deep commitment to break down the barriers that exist in our culture. As several of us team-teach the first-year Covenant Theology class, for example, we try to convey with great passion the beauty of how the gospel is what overcomes the divisions between peoples and races. We seek to practice this as well as teach it, and the consequence of this has been close personal relationships with many of our students.
Our commitment to supernaturally restored relationships also means that all of us spend many hours each week meeting one-on-one with students as well as leading weekly meetings with our Covenant Groups. (These are groups of students and one professor who gather to share and pray with one another.) The effect of this is the development of close friendships with many students, many of which endure long after the students have graduated and taken positions of ministry. One of the primary reasons I accept invitations to speak outside the Seminary is to serve our students once they are out in the ministry. This adds up to many weekends away each year preaching and teaching for our graduates in addition to any local teaching and preaching engagements for those ministering in the St. Louis area.
One of the challenges of this commitment to spend considerable amounts of personal time with students is that many of our pastors-in-training have either no father to model for them what it means to be a godly man, or they have a poor or distant relationship with their fathers. While this schedule may be challenging, one of the deepest satisfactions of working here is seeing young men who have impoverished relational backgrounds growing and flourishing in the grace and love of the Gospel and seeing such young men learn what it means to love and serve their wives, their families, the church, and unbelievers.
In addition to trying to live this out among ourselves, we seek to teach this life of love in our classrooms. For example, in the Pastoral Theology class, I frequently will say to the students, “If you ever invite me to come and preach at the church where you serve, or do an outreach weekend for you, or speak at some conference for you, I won’t ask people what kind of a preacher you are. Rather, I will ask the secretaries and administrative assistants, janitors and cleaners, what it is like to work for you, for this will reveal far more of the true nature of the ministry in a church and of the advance of the Kingdom than any questions about your preaching.” Students may have very great gifts, but unless they learn to live lives of love, they will be merely “noisy gongs or clanging cymbals.” (1 Cor. 13:1 ESV)
Prof. Jerram Barrs serves as professor of Christian studies and contemporary culture and resident scholar of the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute. He brings to his teaching a special sensitivity toward those outside the Christian faith and is in great demand as a speaker in the United States and abroad. This article is a slightly edited version of one that originally appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of Covenant magazine.