Southeastern Seminary (2): A Mission Centered on our Lord’s Great Commission

[Note: This blogpost is the second installment in a five-part series which articulates and expounds Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s mission to be a Great Commission seminary.]

The mission of God, depicted in the previous blogpost, is one in which he redeems his imagers and restores his good creation. However, we find ourselves living “between the times,” as it were. We live in an era between the first and second comings of our Lord, an era in which Christ’s reign has been initiated but not fully realized. In this time between the times, the Lord commissions us to be signs and instruments of his kingdom, charging us to bring the totality of our lives under submission to his Lordship, and making disciples of all the ethne. One of the purest distillations of this mission is found in the Matthean account of the Great Commission, to which the seminary’s mission statement refers. Matthew writes, “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen” (Mt 28:19-20). Matthew presupposes the mission of God and applies it to the mission of God’s people in a way that is uniquely helpful for articulating the seminary’s ministries. Arising from the main points of this text are three imperative characteristics of our seminary faculty:

1. At SEBTS, we will not take for granted the Lordship of Christ. Our Lord begins this passage by declaring that all authority had been given to him in heaven and on earth. This “heaven and earth” language points the reader back to the Genesis account, linking Christ the Redeemer with God the Creator. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, is the one true and living God. This Jesus—Lord of creation and new creation—is the one who commands us and does so with universal authority. A healthy Great Commission seminary, therefore, will provide an environment in which students learn to bring all of life under submission to Christ’s Lordship. Christ is Lord over our personal, social, and cultural lives; Sovereign over our spiritual, moral, rational, creative, relational, and physical lives; King over our families, churches, workplaces, and communities.

2. At SEBTS, we will make disciple-making the focal point of our mission. Just as the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sent them to others. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (Jn 20:21). His directive is missiological, extending beyond Jerusalem and the people of Israel to the uttermost reaches of the earth—to all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations. It is proclamatory and prophetic, in that believer’s baptism by immersion serves as a proclamation and a picture of the gospel, and a preview of the coming Kingdom, when Christ the King will resurrect not only his anthropos but also his cosmos. It is ecclesiological, as baptism precedes and leads to fellowship with a local church. It is personal and spiritual, as baptism signifies one’s personal profession of allegiance to the Triune God.  Finally, it is deeply pedagogical and theological as it involves teaching everything that Christ commanded, a charge that ultimately involves us in teaching the entirety of the Christian Scripture, in whom Christ is the towering actor and of whom Christ is the ultimate author. A Great Commission seminary, therefore, is one in which students learn to study and to teach the Scriptures in their entirety; one which encourages personal and spiritual renewal and corporate spiritual vitality; one which understands its mission as arising from the church and in turn serving the church; one which pulses with the heartbeat of world mission, recognizing that we live in a time—between the times—when God is searching for servants who will say “Here I am” in willingness to take the gospel to every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.

3. At SEBTS we will engender trust in Christ, who alone can empower our mission. In our mission to make disciples, the Lord will always be with us. He undergirds the mission with his presence and power, and will do so until the end. Because of his resurrection, the world has a deeply joyful ending, one in which the Lord redeems for himself worshipers from among every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, and he dwells with them forever in a renewed heaven and earth. A Great Commission seminary, therefore, is one which engenders confidence in God, the gospel, and our mission. The task is daunting, considering that opposition to the gospel has never been more formidable than in the twenty-first century. The magnitude of our task, however, is matched and exceeded by the magnitude of our biblical convictions: that God is a missionary God; that a central theme in the Scriptures is God’s desire to win the nations unto himself; that God will do so through the gospel of his incarnate, crucified, and resurrected Son; that the church’s task in each generation is to proclaim the gospel, make disciples of the nations, and bring God glory in every conceivable manner; and that God has promised and will secure the final triumph of his gospel, even to the ends of the earth.

On Great Commission Church History Classrooms

According to our mission statement, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary seeks to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by equipping students to serve the Church and fulfill the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20). We also like to say that at Southeastern, “every classroom is a Great Commission classroom.” But what does that look like, especially if you are not a missions or evangelism professor? Good question.

My title is Assistant Professor of Church History and Baptist studies. My main sequence of courses is Church History I, Church History II, and Baptist History, all three of which are required core courses. I also teach periodic elective courses on a variety of topics in Baptist Studies and post-1500 church history. Because my classes are not about the Great Commission in the same sense as some other courses, I have to deliberately bring missional priorities to bear on my teaching and assignments. This is what I do.

In my Church History lectures, I emphasize the spread of Christianity through both informal expansion and formal mission efforts. I have found both “history of missions” and “global history of Christianity” texts helpful in shaping my own lectures. I also discuss key figures and movements in missions history (e.g. Ulfilas, the Edinburgh Conference) and try to correct misperceptions and oversimplications (e.g. the Reformers weren’t concerned with missions, William Carey was the first modern missionary, etc.).

In my Baptist History lectures, I emphasize the central role that missions has played in Baptist history, including Southern Baptist history. I discuss key Baptist mission pioneers (there are loads of them!) and important controversies surrounding Baptist missions (ditto). I also discuss the way the language of missions was used in 20th century Baptist life in both helpful and confusing ways. I give some considerable attention to how Southern Baptists cooperate for the sake of missions, particularly through the Cooperative Program.

In all of my classes, I try to make regular Great Commission application. First, I regularly urge my students to consider serving as either foreign missionaries or North American church planters. Second, I recommend reading (including some material unrelated to the class) that I think will help students develop Great Commission priorities in their own ministry. Third, because I am a history professor, we talk quite a bit about how the gospel has been contextualized in various times and places-we discuss good and bad examples of this and try to make relevant application to our present context(s).

As far as assignments go, in each of my classes every student is required to share the gospel at least once during the course of the semester. Students who fail to complete this assignment receive a letter grade deduction from their final grade. While such an assignment might seem unusual in a history class, I explain to my students that we are a theological seminary equipping students primarily to serve the churches through various ministry vocations. We are not pursuing education for the sake of knowledge alone, but education unto edification-we are training for life, godliness, and ministry. Plus, if my students are sharing the gospel, it helps hold me accountable to do the same-we professors live in a Christian bubble as well, so I need encouragement to get out there in the world and share Jesus.

Finally, though it is not directly related to the classroom, I try to be a Great Commission role model to my students. After all, professors (and other leaders) are always teaching-even when we aren’t teaching. I help to coordinate my local church’s Missions Ministry Team, and my students know it because I talk about what our church is doing. I also try to periodically help lead SEBTS mission trips-I am co-leading a trip to India with my friend and colleague George Robinson (who, by the way, is a new Between the Times contributor). And I share with my students some of my own evangelism efforts, especially those that I think include some “teachable moments” (both for the good and the bad!).

This is what I do in my classes-no doubt some colleagues do some things differently and better. I try to regularly learn from my colleagues various ways that I can incorporate Great Commission concerns and all kinds of other important and helpful priorities in my classes. (For example, an ethics colleague, Mark Liederbach, first encouraged me to include a personal evangelism requirement in church history classes, though this requirement is normally associated with personal evangelism classes.) I still have much to learn, and am thankful that God has surrounded me with so many godly role models.

If you are looking for a seminary that weds sound doctrine with missional emphases, then Southeastern is the place for you. If you want to learn to think rightly about God so that you can live rightly before God, then I would urge you to consider Southeastern. If you want to consider what it means to be a gospel-centered leader who is reproducing other gospel-centered leaders, for the glory of God and the sake of the nations, then you may find Southeastern to be just what you are looking for. Let me encourage you to contact our Admissions Office and schedule an appointment to come and visit the SEBTS campus. If you are coming this way, shoot me an email-I’d love to meet you and hear what the Lord is doing in your life.