I Tried to Call Out My Seminary Professor. I Ended Up Changed

As a first-year seminary student with no background in biblical studies, I didn’t belong in that class. I registered for it because it was taught by a favorite professor and wouldn’t be offered again during my time as a student. So, I spent each three-hour, Monday night class mostly lost, jotting things down and nodding when the other students collectively indicated something profound had been said. Suffice it to say, I was way out of my league.

That makes my mid-semester passion to rebuke our professor all the more unbelievable (and embarrassing).

One evening, the professor referred to a phrase at the center of a then-current theological debate. I’d heard of the discussion from friends who were students of one of the theologians at the center of it. So, my ears perked up, and my pulse quickened when the instructor said, “I think it’s a good statement.” I tried to offer a few mild comments to push back before the lecture and classroom conversation moved on.

But I didn’t move on. I stewed over the statement the rest of the evening, still fixated on it when I woke the following day. The more I thought about it, the more agitated I became, and the larger the issue grew. Finally, I was convinced that the professor’s error was tantamount to undoing the Protestant Reformation, and I was the Martin Luther whom God called to address it.

I spent that morning writing a letter to the professor — a passionate missive that pulled no rhetorical punches, asserting his grave danger and calling him to repent. I determined to email it not only to him but to his friend (at the center of the debate) and the seminary president (who would undoubtedly want to know of the theological danger taking root in the seminary’s hallowed halls). Before I hit “send,” the thought entered my mind that it might be wise to speak to him in person first.

I called his office and asked if we could chat. He invited me to stop in any time. When I arrived, his door was open, and he was on the phone. He motioned for me to sit while he wrapped up the call. I lowered myself into the chair, gripping the armrests with white knuckles, praying for God’s help as I waited for the conversation. After hanging up the phone, the professor asked if I was okay, noting I looked a little pale.

My voice wavered a bit as I explained I had a concern about Monday’s night class I wanted to address. More timidly than I pictured it going, I recounted his comments before laying out my concerns. I explained that I had composed a letter to his friend and the seminary’s president. He patiently and graciously asked me questions until he understood my concern. Then he explained what he meant by what he said, offering me an unhurried opportunity to dialogue. Even though he didn’t share my concern, I left his office assured that he understood me and had an orthodox faith.

I walked home, overcome not only by the professor’s humility but also by his love for me. He was a world-class New Testament scholar with decades of academic training and experience. He’d published multiple commentaries and countless articles and spoken at esteemed gatherings. It would have been easy for him to take offense at a first-year student with no previous biblical training daring to question his orthodoxy — but he didn’t. He could have easily clobbered me over the head with his extensive biblical and theological knowledge — but he didn’t.

Instead, he treated me as a brother in Christ, an equal in standing and worth. He treated me as a peer who may have insight (and correction) to offer. And to my surprise, he began the next class by referring to his statement the previous week. He said, “A student visited me last week to express concern. After reflecting on it this week, I can see how it could cause confusion and be taken to mean something it doesn’t. So, I’ve decided to no longer use that terminology.” He hadn’t just loved and honored me — he’d learned from me.

I recently sent him a piece of theological writing I was preparing to publish. He replied with his appreciation, adding his discomfort with a small section. It was theologically “deficient” and could lead to a wrong understanding of our Savior. (The tables had turned, and things were in the proper order — the teacher was correcting the student!) He patiently engaged my requests to clarify his concerns and graciously pointed me to appropriate resources. Ultimately, I understood how my terminology was deficient and could lead to serious theological errors. So, I rewrote the section in question to remedy the lack of clarity.

As I reflected on the two interactions, I realized how his gentleness 25 years ago made it easy for me to accept his concerns today. By humbling himself to listen to a first-year student, he modeled how to receive concerns, setting an example for me to follow. Not only that, but he also proved that he cared about me. Had he taken offense, responded with harsh condescension, mocked my feeble theological skills, and gleefully destroyed me with his theological brilliance, I would have completed the class and avoided him from then on out. I would not have asked him to review what I wrote today. His graciousness to me in my 20s paved the way for me to receive the grace of correction as I near my 50s.

His example reminds me of Christ, as Paul describes him in Philippians 2. Our Lord did not count his greatness (equality with God) as something to exploit in service to himself at the cost of others. Instead, voluntarily humbled himself and became a servant. He loved people and sought their wellbeing, even when it meant public humiliation through death on a cross for our sins. Because of that humility, God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him as Lord of lords. And he draws us to himself by promising that he is gentle and lowly, offering rest (not punishment) for our souls.

As I reflect on my professor’s kindness in the light of Christ, the nature of leadership is freshly impressed on my heart. To be good leaders, teachers, and pastors, we may not see ourselves as “above” those we serve. We may not exploit our power and privilege for our benefit, especially when it costs them. Instead, we must see ourselves as their servants, using what is ours to serve them, condescending into suffering so that they might flourish in life.

Like Jesus’ people and my professor’s students, those we lead must see and experience our love and kindness as they encounter us. That is only possible when we live in light of Christ by faith. When we know our sin and his grace and are confident in his provision and our standing in him, we have nothing to fear by forsaking momentary comfort and honor for the good of others. In a little while, Christ will give us more comfort and honor than we can imagine.

Between now and then, we get to model Christ for others and help them know what it is to receive his redeeming love.

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