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The Fruit of Association and Theological Diversity

February 22, 2014

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” – John 17:20–23

Believe it or not, my interest in theology was kindled after reading Battle for the Bible (1978) by Harold Lindsell (1913-1998) while I was in college. I was drawn to the book’s polemical certainty about biblical inerrancy as the ultimate litmus test of Christian orthodoxy. Lindsell, one of the architects of the neo-evangelical coalition in mid-twentieth century America, made me fearful of applying to study at Fuller Theological Seminary, at least initially. I  eventually ended up attending Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (now Palmer Seminary) because the denomination that my church was affiliated with – the American Baptists – provided significant financial aid. Also, the seminary was relatively close to New York City, where I had grown up and attended college.

Though I spent only one year at Eastern Baptist, the professors there opened my eyes to a broader vision of what it meant to be a Christian bridge builder. Here is a partial list of people I am thankful to have had a chance to learn from: Elouise and David Frazier, J. Deotis Roberts, Thomas McDaniel, Myron and Jan Chartier, Stephen Brachlow, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo.

But by far the biggest influence at Eastern was my dear classmate, Jesus LaGuerra, whose passion for ministry and intellectual integrity so impressed me that I could not ignore how much social justice was at the heart of the gospel. His interest in Orlando Costas and Latin American liberation theology inspired me to reconsider how deeply embedded into Western culture my theology had been. Jesus, along with InterVarsity Staff Bill Sweeting, gave me the courage to transfer to Union Theological Seminary (NYC), where I was exposed to a diversity of theological voices.

Lesson one: the risk of marginalization

The journey to Union Seminary was not a smooth transition. A seminarian scholarship I received from a Chinese Christian organization was rescinded. I believe this organization would have much preferred for me to attend Westminster Seminary, which was favored by many Chinese pastors. I realize now that even attending Eastern Seminary was risky. The Chinese evangelical world tends to assume guilt by association and doesn’t hesitate to marginalize its own – especially if they walk outside a prescribed “safe” path. In turn, Chinese evangelicals have a propensity to marginalize themselves from the wider Church and community.

It also took a long time for me to overcome “culture shock” at Union Seminary, where the language of faith differed so greatly from what I was raised in. In fact, I never learned how to “fit into” the mainline Protestant world. In many instances, I was associated with the Religious Right because of my evangelical convictions. So I took solace with my Black, Korean, and Latino colleagues at Union who, for the most part, also retained their evangelical convictions while supporting progressive public policy.

But at Union Seminary I learned that the risk of marginalization was well worth it. I learned that Jesus’ prayers for unity among his disciples and Paul’s ministry of uniting Jew and Greek into the Body of Christ were at the center of Christian witness to the world. The ecumenical vision of oneness while respecting diversity is risky because no one is ever totally satisfied with the end product. And those who work for unity are often marginalized, too.

Lesson two: the fruit of association

During an interview for a program director position at a mainline Protestant seminary about nine years ago, I was asked to pick a side. Would I identify myself as evangelical or mainline? Such a question was and is very difficult for me to answer because I’ve often felt marginalized from both “camps.” Furthermore, most people’s Christian identity is far more nuanced than simply evangelical versus mainline. But “bridge-building” has been part of my calling since my days at Eastern Baptist – whether between the church and the academy, theology and “secular” disciplines, immigrant and next generation Asian Americans, or conservative and liberal theologies. Since my Union Seminary days, I’ve tried to stay in relationship with both the evangelical and mainline Protestant world. Though it was quite a challenge, I managed to stay within Chinese evangelical networks. It would have been far more difficult to sustain the “bridge building” ministry if not for the growing movement of Asian American evangelicals who were more “progressive” on social and racial justice issues. I suspect that they were also struggling with double-marginalization!

Today, I can confidentially assert that the fruit of ecumenical association has been far more rewarding than the hurt that comes from being guilty by association. Like most people, I enjoy receiving accolades for my personal accomplishments. But I’d rather be known as someone who can bring a team together, lead collaboratively, and produce something that represents a larger vision. To co-labor with different people for a common goal has not only been more satisfying, but I believe the “end product” has more enduring value. I’ll share one example:

Pulpit & Pew

The Asian American Religious Leadership Today report

Ten years ago, with a Lily grant from the Pulpit and Pew Research Institute, I helped to direct what was probably the first inter-denominational study of Asian American Christian leadership. You can access the final report at https://timtseng.net/asian-american-religious-leadership-today_apipulpitpewreport/

This report brought together scholars of Asian American Christianity from evangelical, mainline, and Roman Catholic backgrounds. The ecumenical relationships at the Graduate Theological Union (I was on faculty at one of its member schools) was one of the main reasons why this unique collaboration worked. The many years I spent to cultivate relationships with these scholars was another factor. The report itself is becoming outdated, but I believe that the friendships that were formed will endure. Furthermore, I think that the process of creating this report was a template for future projects that have produced valuable studies of Asian American evangelicalism.

Navigating the rough waters of theological diversity is not easy. But I learned that God calls some people to be “bridge builders.” These people walk through the valley of marginalization. But they don’t give up because the joy of seeing the Church demonstrate unity and thus bear witness to God’s glory is worth it! It has been for me. May God continue to raise up more “bridge-building” leaders!

Tim Tseng 曾 祥 雨 :: PhD
Pastor of English Ministries
Canaan Taiwanese Christian Church

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